Herman Mashaba will not talk about losing. Sitting on a red sofa in Sandton’s Southern Sun Hotel, I try to raise the possibility of a coalition government in Johannesburg.
“No, Greg, I refuse anyone saying, ‘If I don’t win…’ Do you think I can go into this serious matter to lose? I can assure you we’re going to win this.”
“But there is a possibility that…”
“What possibility? That possibility doesn’t exist. People of Johannesburg are tired. People of Johannesburg are ready for change, and I believe that my [role], as a leader of the DA team in this city, is to tell people of Johannesburg, ‘Please give us an outright majority,’ and I assure you they’ll give us an outright majority.”
On Saturday, DA leader Mmusi Maimane announced that Mashaba, self-assured and fast-talking, would be the party’s candidate for Johannesburg mayor in this year’s local government elections. He beat the only other candidate for the role, Professor and Councillor, Rabelani Dagada. The DA is targeting the municipality, along with Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay, after the ANC’s support declined here from 59% in 2011 to 52% in 2014. But with the ANC governing the city since democracy, and other parties also vying for the prize, the DA faces stiff competition.
The 56-year-old Mashaba has told his story many times, particularly through his first book Black Like You, and will tell it many more times during the election. He was raised in GaRamotse outside Hammanskraal, his father a pharmacy assistant and mother a domestic worker. Noticing how contact with whites led to a loss of dignity, the young Mashaba refused to work as a gardener to make pocket money, and instead supported his family selling dagga and running dice games. After trying various jobs he founded the first major local black hair-care company, “Black Like Me”, in 1985.
He had to sell the company, bought it back, and later sold his majority-share but stayed on as a non-executive director while managing his investments. In 2012, Mashaba was elected chairman of the Free Market Foundation (FMF), promoting the developmental power of capitalism through confronting the unions and state intervention in the economy.
In May 2014, I met Mashaba in his Sandton office. He had just resigned from his position as FMF chair after announcing he had joined the DA as an ordinary member. He could not believe that the ANC, with all the country’s troubles, could get over 60% of the national vote. That’s why he joined the DA. During almost two years in the party, he met people who asked him to get further involved in politics. It seemed inevitable that he would move beyond the status of “ordinary member”. When President Jacob Zuma replaced Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene with Des van Rooyen, Mashaba knew he should run as the DA’s candidate for Johannesburg mayor. On December 10, the day after the Van Rooyen appointment, he announced his candidacy.
“I’ve always really felt I’d really been a stupid politician because I’ve always been a capitalist and a proud one for that matter, unapologetic capitalist,” says Mashaba, whose most recent book is called Capitalist Crusader. “So I really wasn’t really sure that I’d be the right person, but I made it very clear, abundantly clear, from the beginning that I’m not going to sit back if I see the deterioration of the situation in our country and I decided to throw my body on the line because this bus with Zuma and the ANC, this country, is going to collapse economically. But we’ve still got a very, very good chance of stopping it.”
He has no qualms about being a capitalist. Critics will, and have, painted him as a defender of big business who will put profits first and the poor second, but he says, “I have a feeling sometimes that I have to ask Zuma and this government, ‘Why do they actually hate poor people…’ They think poor people’s issues can be addressed by food parcels and T-shirts instead of actually giving them their pride and really create employment opportunities for them, provide good education for them.”
Everyone agrees that poverty, inequality and unemployment are unacceptably prevalent. Mashaba and the DA want to tackle the problems through better service delivery, and growing the economy with policies friendly to small businesses. While the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), parts of the student movement, and at times the ANC themselves are looking at greater state intervention, Mashaba is fighting against bargaining council agreements being extended to small businesses – he and the FMF have a court date with the Labour Minister on the matter in February. They want to grow the economy by assisting businesses add jobs and for people to start their own companies. Mashaba, like the DA, believes in the idea of getting people in jobs, and the pride that can follow, even if those jobs are low-paying.
As soon as Mashaba’s nomination was announced, he was called out for his stance on black economic empowerment. If given the chance he would reform laws classifying him as black. “I’m for the development and redress of the past. That’s something that I practice and I’ve been practising for the last 30 years starting with my own business,” he says. But he has misgivings about racial classifications and BBBEE-related cronyism. “A system like this, you can only really divide a nation. I think we need to really look at something better without classifying us along racial lines because you’re bringing racism into lives on a daily basis being forced by government so that every day I must be conscious that I’m a black person, the next person is white. I believe very strongly that we need to build a non-racial society. I think I want to be first as far as government is concerned, I must be treated as, classified as, a South African.”
Mashaba took a lead against racism on social media this year by opening criminal charges against Penny Sparrow. He’s also resolutely against anyone attacking his personal identity: “I’ve always really been a proud human being. I actually don’t need anyone to reaffirm that. I am a proud independent thinking kind of person. I don’t need anyone to really give me any other identity than the current identity that I’ve got.”
What will he do if he is elected mayor of Johannesburg? After our interview, Mashaba is going to meet his campaigning team for the first time. After that he’ll be in Norway for the week speaking on his work with the Field Band Foundation. When he’s back, he aims to visit all of Johannesburg’s wards while his wife takes over their businesses.
On the specifics of city policy, and what Mayor Parks Tau has done wrong, Mashaba seems still light. His campaign promises are still in the works and until then it’s easier to talk on broad issues, but he is adamant that a simple look at the townships shows the city is not working. In his acceptance speech he identified broad improvements like boosting the economy, fighting drugs and corruption and offering residents title deeds. In his first 100 days in office, he says, he wants to improve city staff morale.
“I want you to give me a mandate with terms. That is really what I can only ask the people of Johannesburg to do, because we’re not here to rule until Jesus comes. That is really one thing I want the voters to know. We’re not there to rule as long as Jesus comes. We’re there to rule as long as we can deliver.”
Is he a stupid politician, I ask, taking him back to his earlier comment. “I’m a human being and a citizen of this country, and the world and what is politics? Politics is about delivering to people, being a public servant and that is really what I’ve decided to do because I have to really do this job because if I don’t really do this job who should? When the bus is crashing I can’t just be waiting for everyone else to stop it, and I sit in the bus. I believe it is time for all of us like-minded South Africans to actually come out and help stop this bus.”
The DA has put Mashaba in front of the bus. The ANC still relies on its struggle history, and its record in government, good or bad, to collect votes. The DA will use the “Black Like Me” founder’s story of independence, hard work, and business success. The EFF will be talking revolution. Voters will have to decide, essentially, against systems – the DA’s brand of capitalism, the EFF’s form of socialism, or the ANC, confused, somewhere in between.