For Herman Mashaba it was a long and tiring climb to the top. An apartheid police crackdown on student politics forced a young Mashaba out of the University of the North, in his second year. He was forced to work as a clerk.
“One day we were ordered by police to leave the university immediately. I never understood why they had to involve law enforcement in solving matters with the students. I simply packed my bags and went home,” recalls Mashaba.
In two years, he saved enough to buy a car. Mashaba had a short stint as sales representative for a hair products company – SuperKurl. It was here where he met a white Afrikaner business associate, Johan Kriel, who was also a pharmacist. The law didn’t allow the two to go into business together. But they found a way around this to start a company called Black Like Me.
In 1984, Mashaba quit the job, after two years, and started selling his own hair products from the boot of his car. From the seed capital of R30,000 (around $2,000) he borrowed from friends, Mashaba had built a R10-million ($725,000) factory in 1993, running in the heart of Mabopane township, north of Pretoria.
Apartheid laws prevented Mashaba from buying or renting land in an industrial area, so he was forced to build his own 6,000-square-meter factory.
Soon, Black Like Me products went all over Southern Africa but clearly somebody didn’t like it and threw a match.
“November 17, 1993, is a day I will never forget. It’s a day I have difficulty explaining but out of it came a lot of lessons. The incident itself was horrific; how I survived was a miracle. Only God knows,” says Mashaba.
This was to become Mashaba’s worst day, the destruction of seven years of producing Black Like Me products from a dusty township factory.
“I stood there watching the fire department people fighting the fire in my factory. I immediately realized it was not an accidental fire, it was spread across the factory. When the fire department combed the place, this arsonist came through. Unfortunately, when the workers started to arrive for the six o’clock shift, the factory was gone to ashes. You can imagine over R10 million in 1993, it’s close to R100 million today. More than 150 people were crying for their jobs,” says Mashaba.
He says there was no time to cry. His suppliers’ trucks came to deliver stock to the burned down factory that he had to find an alternative storeroom for. By 9AM, he assembled his management team and discussed an alternative. In two weeks, Mashaba found a smaller place to work in in Midrand, north of Johannesburg. But it took two years to get back to full production.
“The lesson for me was that while I went through this people moved on, that’s where I lost market share. The products were not on shelves. The same day when the factory burned down, I had a call from our office in Johannesburg, to tell me about a delivery from Lesotho. The delivery turned out to be bags of marijuana. I asked them to get police involved. The tragedy of it is there was never an investigation,” says Mashaba.
Despite him asking people for information and offering a R50,000 ($3,600) reward, no one was prosecuted for burning down his factory.
Mashaba credits his culture of saving for getting him back on his feet. When the insurance was taking too long to refund, Mashaba used his savings to get the new factory in Midrand.
“I didn’t even get half of what I was insured for, and they took time to pay me. You can imagine the banks at the time, as blacks, they were not interested in us. The only relationship I had with banks was to deposit my money,” he says.
“Fortunately, I never allowed circumstances to determine my fate. I have always believed I was in control of my destiny. I don’t want politicians’, or anyone’s, favors.”
The fire is one of many stories in Mashaba’s first book: Black Like You. Mashaba’s second one, launched this year, is called Capitalist Crusader, a title borrowed from a headline for a FORBES AFRICA cover story on him. In the book, Mashaba speaks about issues that see him vilified by his people who accuse him of being an insensitive capitalist.
“I want to be known as a capitalist. I wrote the book openly, so that people know my agenda upfront. At the same time, I don’t want to be misrepresented. Unfortunately, collective thinking to a large extent misleads people. Most people’s agendas are not what they preach. Let’s judge each other on the basis of what we are doing not what we are preaching,” he says.
Mashaba says the government is to blame for high unemployment.
“This higher unemployment of South African people is a man-made phenomenon created by the government. It looks like it is in our government’s interest for people not to work, so that they depend on government grants. If they really wanted people to work, they would create an environment for entrepreneurs and capitalists to create work for people. We need a free market. They must ask their colleagues in China and Russia what communism did to people,” says Mashaba.
“To protect democracy you need active citizenship, you don’t need to be politicians. If South Africa wants to be a model and a prosperous nation, we need a free market system. You cannot prosper by the government being the driver of the economy. Just create the environment that will allow the 50-odd-million South Africans to be the players. And the sooner we abolish all race-based legislations, the better for the future of this country. It is very dangerous to run the country on the basis of race and tribalism.”
In early 2014, Mashaba stepped down as a chairman of the Free Market Foundation, a post he held for two years, to join main opposition party the Democratic Alliance (DA). He was vilified by many in the black community and called a traitor for joining what they say is a party of white privilege. Mashaba maintains he has no political ambitions, despite being approached by many to throw his hat in the ring for the mayor of Johannesburg.
“There’s no way you are going to see me toy-toying. I never toy-toyed in my 56 years of living, so I don’t think I will start now. I think I will be a stupid politician. If there was no DA, there would be no one I would vote for. Yes, they are not perfect but they represent my value system,” says Mashaba.
Today, from his sunny office in Sandton, the richest square mile in Africa, Mashaba leads Lephatsi Investments, a company with interests in mining, construction and logistics.
He invests in young companies with ideas. After two decades, Mashaba hasn’t forgotten his worst day of fire, fury and despair – he lives to help young go-ahead companies survive theirs.