“Independence,” wrote Dr Maya Angelou, “is a heady draught, and if you drink it in your youth, it can have the same effect on the brain as young wine does. It does not matter that its taste is not always appealing. It is addictive and with each drink you want more.”
Sure, the author and civil rights activist was writing about her tumultuous life as a teenager in 1940s California. But her words would ring just as true for a multimillionaire founder of a South African haircare empire.
Born in Hammanskraal in 1959, Herman Mashaba had little choice but to look after himself. Fatherless from the age of two, he was largely raised by his school-going sisters. His mother, a domestic worker in Pretoria, managed to sneak home to her family once or twice a month. Her pay (R29) wasn’t enough to cover school fees (25c a year), let alone water and firewood. Stealing, then, was a way of life.
“This was not the exception, but the rule,” he says now of his early years under apartheid’s thumb. “But on Sundays we all went to church,” he chuckles.
By the age of 12 or 13, young “Headman” was running dice games as a “knocksman”, relieving his peers of money they’d earned as gardeners and caddies in the city. Gambling brought financial independence which, with surprising foresight for a teenager, funded his high school education.
“My grandfather always told me how special I was, and his words motivated me, encouraged me to make the most of my life,” he explains. “And I’m a self-driven human being. I’ve always taken responsibility for my life. I don’t really rely on other people. You learn from other people, but at the end of the day I take full responsibility for my actions.”
So when, in 1980, unrest at the University of the North dashed his political science studies, he saw his subsequent jobs as a clerk (seven months at a distribution warehouse; 23 months at furniture manufacturers) as more than dead ends.
“My approach in life is that any opportunity I get, I take as a real opportunity,” offers the man who’s always considered himself proactive and practical. “As much as I could have been unhappy about the salary I was earning and the racial issues I had to deal with, I was making the most of the situation.
“But I also realised: ‘If I stick around now, I’m going to waste my life. I’ve only got one chance in life, so I’ve got to make my next move.’ And my next move was really to achieve my independence.”
He got married.
“I knew I needed to stabilise my life,” he remembers, considering his marriage to Connie – 32 years and counting – the best decision he’s ever made. He bought a brand-new Toyota Corolla (R3000 deposit, R180 in monthly instalments) even though he couldn’t drive. And, aged 22, he quit his job to become a door-to-door salesman.
At first it was insurance policies; later linen, crockery, and fire detection systems from the boot of his car – all the while dodging police harassment and the pass laws. (Wearing a suit, he discovered, helped.) And when haircare products became his biggest seller, he saw – and grabbed – another opportunity.
“I realised I needed to manufacture,” he explains. “Even though I was the top salesman, in those days black people were not protected in terms of employment and you were always at the whim of your white employer to do what they wanted with you.
“So before I become a victim like my father or my mother, I decided I must move on.”
Backed by the technical skills of a white Afrikaner chemist (“In 1984 it was unheard of for a black person to talk to a white person about going into business, but I took a chance”), the sales support of a former colleague, and a R30 000 loan, Black Like Me was born on Valentine’s Day 1985. At 24, Herman was truly independent.
“We were so successful from the beginning because black women in South Africa wanted to be permed. And I thought: ‘Herman go perm them, and make money’,” he chuckles. “And that’s really what I did.”
With the start-up funding repaid within seven months, the company has gone from strength to strength – overcoming the torching of their factory in 1993 – to become a brand as synonymous with South Africa as Carling Black Label and Mrs Balls.
Since Herman resigned as CEO in 2004, his main business focus has been BEE company Lephatsi Investments, which has interests in mining, financial services, and construction.
“We’ll look at an opportunity, regardless of the sector, if the business has good management and the potential to grow,” he explains. “We invest in businesses that need strategy partners, BEE, and capital, and take them to the next level.”
Also being taken to the next level is the avid Saturday golfer’s newfound career as an author.
Following the success of his inspirational 2012 autobiography, ‘Black Like You’, Herman’s now writing another book that’s just as close to his heart. Using his personal experiences as a basis, it focuses on three fundamental issues: promotion of the free market economy, the need for ethical leadership, and fighting racial, gender, and cultural discrimination.
These shared beliefs influenced his recent decision to become a card-carrying Democratic Alliance member.
“The DA resonates with my own personal aspiration in the sense that it can definitely help deliver the rainbow nation that Mandela dreamt of,” he reasons. “And, in terms of their economic policies, they’re very friendly to business, while recognising that employees must also be taken care of.”
The businessman is clearly excited by this new chapter and, based on his approach to life, it can only be a success.
“It didn’t happen by chance,” Herman says of his personal and business achievements. “You have to plan your life, because if you want results, you can’t just wait for divine intervention.”
Maya Angelou, who started out as a lowly fry cook, would certainly have agreed.
- This article originally appeared in Man, the men’s lifestyle magazine of the Foschini group. (Photo: Gareth van Nelson/HSMimages)