There was certainly nothing special about his childhood in Garamotse, Hammanskraal. Like millions of black people under apartheid he grew up dirt poor, in a single-parent home which his mother tried to keep together with her meager domestic-worker wages.
Like millions of angry black youths, he grew to hate the apartheid rulers, together with the capitalist icons of the day with whom they identified the likes of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Like millions of other members of his generation, he pioneered his way to matric, and became the first in his family to go to university, only to have his dream of a degree dashed by the shutdown of the university in the turmoil of the protests against apartheid. And like so many others, his dream hardened into a desire to leave the country for military training and to come back as a freedom fighter.
He went to work in Pretoria, first at a shop and later at a furniture factory, waiting for a chance to slip out of the country, but it never came, just like it never came for millions of his generation.
But then he began to break the mould, or, in the imagery of Business Partners’ square peg movement aimed at celebrating and unleashing South Africa’s entrepreneurs, he refused to fit into the hole that was dug for him. Rather than wait to fight for his freedom with an AK47, he decided to start immediately by working for himself.
One month shy of two years at the furniture factory, he took the last salary cheque of his life, and with the brand new Toyota Corolla which he had bought, he started selling whatever product he could from the boot of his car, for whoever was willing to pay him commission – insurance, fire sensors, crockery, linen, dinner sets.
It was the early eighties, and the entire system in South Africa mitigated against a black person working for himself. Hundreds of hurdles plagued daily life, such as the ubiquitous apartheid enforcers who would check that every black person they came across had a dompas – a document to prove that you had permission to be in white South Africa because you worked for a white boss. As he shuttled between the townships of Pretoria and the white-owned businesses from which he got the products, he constantly ran into them, and because he was working for himself, Mashaba had no such pass. One of the many survival strategies he adopted was to wear a suit, which led many an apartheid policeman to assume that he must have a job.
As a freelance salesman, Mashaba started selling a hair-care cream for a company called World of Hair. The white-owned company had found an eager market for products aimed at the burgeoning black hair salons that were mushrooming in South Africa’s growing cities. The combination of Mashaba’s drive, the new product and the booming demand proved potent, and soon Mashaba was the company’s top salesman. At age 24, he stood before the stark choice: Live relatively comfortably and risk-free as a salesman while making someone else rich, or take a risk and try to own the opportunity himself.
“Naturally,” says Mashaba, he chose to start making his own product to compete with an entrenched business that had all the force of apartheid behind it. It is difficult for any born-free to comprehend the audacity of Mashaba’s decision. Not only did he have no experience in manufacturing, no knowledge of the chemistry of beauty products, no assets to speak of, no chance of getting bank finance, no rights to own property or move freely in South Africa, he also had no role model. There simply were no black industrialists around whose example he could follow.
In order to give himself at least a fighting chance, he set about putting a partnership together consisting of fellow salesman Joseph Molwantwa, a garage owner in Mabopane, Walter Dube, and most audacious of all, the production manager of World of Hair, Johan Kriel, a white Afrikaner. Each owned 25% of the new venture.
“From day one of my business career I’ve always partnered with other people, because I recognised I have serious weaknesses as a person and I can only work so many hours in a day. So the only way I can complement myself is to surround myself with partners,” says Mashaba.
Mashaba’s talent for picking the right partner extended to his wife Connie, who joined the new business from the start as accountant.
Dube provided finance of R30 000 and they set up a production line in Garankuwa, at premises rented from the Small Business Development Corporation, the predecessor of Business Partners. Kriel had figured out a way of producing the hair cream quicker than the opposition, and Black Like Me burst onto the market with the force of Mashaba’s sales effort.
Within seven months, Dube’s loan was paid off and Black Like Me grew frenetically, despite the turmoil of the late eighties in which it was born. Ironically, just when the country was about to embrace peace and democracy, the factory was burned down in 1993 in a mysterious arson attack. It was a devastating blow for Mashaba who, characteristically, set about rebuilding the factory bit by bit – this time in Midrand, because apartheid’s property restrictions had been lifted by then.
In 1997, Mashaba sold Black Life Me to Colgate Palmolive. He bought it back two years later when the merger did not work out, but the experience propelled him into the corporate world. Today he manages a thriving investment company, Lephatsi Investments, and has become a prominent advocate for a free-market system in South Africa.
Mashaba decided to join Business Partners’ square peg movement because he believes it will help to correct the widespread misconception that entrepreneurs are oppressors, whereas they are liberators. Entrepreneurship is the path to freedom, and it is being denied to many young people through the restrictions placed on businesses, including tough labour laws. He says his first job at the shop in Pretoria was a crucial step on his journey to freedom. In today’s environment, that job would be considered exploitative. “In fact, I exploited that job by using it to gain experience,” he said.
Does he find it difficult still to be swimming against the stream, this time arguing for free-market economics while so many in South Africa believe in heavy state intervention? No, says Mashaba, he is simply exercising the freedom for which he fought so hard.