The redoubtable Mr Herman Mashaba

By Phakamisa Mayaba / Besides being stone-cold forthright, Herman Mashaba also has a reputation for being stubborn – very, very stubborn — and for harbouring views that verge on the extreme: condemning rapists and murderers to the noose; mass deportations visited upon undocumented foreign nationals; a hardline military presence on our ‘porous borders’, and that South Africans do not owe anybody an apology for defending themselves against hostile outsiders. These are some of the things one could expect should his party, ActionSA, ever enjoy an outright majority.

As such, stacked high against his character stand disparaging accusations of xenophobia and an unflinching temperament that, left unchecked, might be seen as fringing on incitement. Given his unyielding disposition, however, it is clearly going to take way more than social media and naysayer criticism for this 63-year-old to work himself into the habit of biting his tongue.

As the brains behind the hair product company Black Like Me, Mashaba has been the darling of generations of African women. As a politician, however, he has been known for utterances that leave many pulling at their hair.

Herman Mashaba at the Metro FM studios with the hip hop DJ Thabo ‘Tbo Touch’ Molefe, holding a book about Herman’s eventful three-year spell as mayor of Johannesburg by his then chief of staff, Michael Beaumont.

Just a few years ago he was executive mayor of the City of Johannesburg, ‘the economic powerhouse of Africa’, his colours firmly nailed to the mast of the Democratic Alliance (DA). In the wake of the party’s poor showing in the 2019 general elections and the subsequent resignation of its leader, Mmusi Maimane, this marriage turned sour, resulting in Mashaba walking out and going it alone. He took particular umbrage at Helen Zille’s ascent to the position of Federal Council chairperson, and did not mince his words when he said the party would clearly no longer be pro-black and pro-poor, and how he felt about it.

Many hastened to pen the political obituary of the man from Hammanskraal, banishing him, like the grim township of his birth, to the fringes where he might soon be forgotten. Clearly they were unaware of the sterner stuff that had steeled him from the very beginning. Among other things, he tells eParkeni, he lost his father at two years old, and was basically raised in a child-headed household, as his mother had to work as a domestic worker in Johannesburg.

His father had not built the family a house, meaning they were always hobbling from one relative’s good graces to the next, and he spent a large part of his formative years in a two-room shack. Despite these adverse material circumstances, Mr Mashaba credits his stable, loving family with giving him the fortitude that has enabled him to weather political and other storms. ‘My grandfather played a key role in building my character,’ he says. ‘He instilled in me a sense of personal responsibility and the characteristics required to navigate life to succeed.’

Herman Mashaba in hands-on mode.

Success. Was that a word a black man under the whip of apartheid could even use?  In 1979, in his second year of a BA degree, Mr Mashaba experienced the crushing answer to that question at first hand. The regime made ‘it impossible to complete my studies,’ he recounts. ‘I then took a decision to look for contacts to assist me to illegally leave the country to seek military training.’ But when his designs for the underground stalled, he took up employment at two companies as a despatch clerk.

At 22, he tied the knot, bought a car, and started a career as a commission salesman, selling everything from life insurance policies to cutlery. By 1983 he was a suave, top salesman of black hair products, a move that inspired the ‘decision to establish my own manufacturing hair business.’ In January 1985 the BC-sounding Black Like Me was born and ‘everything is now history’, says a proud Mr Mashaba.

His acumen for getting things off the ground served him well when he fell out with the DA. As a successful businessman, he could have retired to enjoy the comforts and hobbies of the wealthy, playing golf and hosting elegant shindigs. Instead, he formed ActionSA, reinventing himself as a crusader who would do things the way he knew. So why, when money is not a motive, give himself the headache of public office? ‘I believe God has given me the financial independence to allow me the opportunity to serve my country without having to worry about my next meal,’ he tells eParkeni.

Herman Mashaba with members of the Action SA campaign team.

That’s a word that comes up a few times in our correspondence; God. Of the country’s deteriorating education, he says, ‘Without massive investment in quality education, South Africa is bound to fail. We need one education department, with government responsible for the appointment of school principals, not unions. We must reintroduce school inspectors, and more importantly, bring God back into our schooling system. We need investment in technical training as well.’

In what could be seen as an act of unprovoked self-mutilation for a black politician, he is not a fan of race-based policies, preferring instead to talk about a non-racial society, ‘social justice, and a pro-poor government. We need a free market economy, with the role of government being to create a fair and equal opportunities for all.’

It would not be far-fetched to conclude that the fact that he ‘never saw poverty as an obstacle, but an opportunity to better [his] life’ is the motivation behind the economic leanings he stands by today.

He calls for a system in which the rule of law, free of political meddling, is sacrosanct, complemented by a government with strong moral principles and ethics. In defence of his views about immigrants, he says that ‘South Africa was built [on] the back of migrants’, and he holds no gripes with migrants who come to work or live here legally. When does rankle him is when the government seemingly allows ‘international criminal syndicates to treat our country as their playground.’

Connecting with people at the grass roots. All images from Herman Mashaba’s Facebook page.

To those Karoo residents who find themselves despondent, and without prospects, Mr Mashaba reminds them that, ‘It is only through voting and holding politicians accountable that South Africans will change the wrong current trajectory of the ANC government. Learn to vote politicians in, and vote them out when they fail you.’

Out on the streets, he is known to be a sharply dressed, streetwise and jocular fellow. Although headstrong, he is said to lead by consensus. As we write, he is due to launch a ‘groundbreaking policy and consultation process’ aimed at giving the orginary ‘people of South Africa a voice in shaping our collective destiny.’

Some remain skeptical. Writing in Daily Maverick, the political analyst Ismail Lagardien has gone as far as arguing that Mashaba’s ‘anti-politics has more in common with the delusions of free-marketeers and ideologically lost bandits who make things up as they go along’. As for Mr Mashaba, he says he is merely envisioning a South Africa that is thriving and prosperous and that cannot be ‘auctioned to the highest bidders for beer, whisky, meat and bags of cash’.

  • Autnor’s note: Whether Mr Mashaba will live up to his promises should he come to occupy the most powerful seat in the land is anybody’s guess. But when eParkeni – a negligible rag in a throwaway place – sent emails to a range of known and lesser known public figures, he was the only one who not only responded, but treated our correspondence with magnanimity and an open heart, for which we are most grateful. Sure, the gesture says nothing about his fitness to hold office, but it does speak volumes about his spirit. We often hear platitudes by politicians about serving people at the grass roots. Mr Mashaba personified what this entails, and how much small things sometimes mean to those affected by them.
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