Capitalists like me: It’s time to speak truth to power

'Kwi-ding-ding. Kwi-dong! Kwi-ding-dong-doo daah …" a tiny figure of a man, eyes wide shut, is caressing the ebonies and ivories of his sheen-black baby grand Yamaha Clavinova. "Kwi-dding." he tweaks it, and the darn thing gives off the kind of suppressed howl that only a piano can.

For a moment, one feels like a lone member of the audience at a classical recital. But this man is not exactly playing DWMM – dead white men's music: Chopin, Debussy, Brahms, Verdi, Tchaikovsky or some such. But I don't care.

Herman Mashaba could be playing some skokiaan from Tlhala-Mpya for all I care. What I care about is he is playing it for me! Dang!

No, no, he is not even that good. For a self-taught and still learning piano player in the making (see "pianist" is, err, pushing it) he is also not outlandishly terrible. We are in the lounge of his million-dollar spread in the gated part of Atholl, where Johannesburg's old money resides.

I am here to talk to Mashaba about the incredibly challenging noise he's been making recently. A noise that's more like a kick in the gut of the current South African political establishment as well as what can be arbitrarily called the country's neoradical politics.

We are here to talk about Mashaba's rather unsettling – to the left-leaning part of our government at least – notion of free-market capitalism.

Can the markets really be free? What has the 2008 Wall Street meltdown taught us about the "free" jargon? So what is Mashaba talking about? Aha. You will soon hear. 

First let us lose the teen-gumption labels of radical chic. It should be said that nobody understands who a socialist is – in its old political- economy, or dialectical definition – anymore. Or what a radical is. The language itself has become radically altered. Contemporary pop icons known for sexual subversion, such as Rihanna, often tweet "that's so rad".

So, next time you hear someone being defined as a "radical", allow your red flags to flash up. Radical what? Radical thug life? Radical conservative? Radical communist? Radical tribalist? Who is a radical? Mazibuko Jara? Or those people singing Zahara songs at communist party shindigs?

Back at Mashaba's family digs. The man is playing his own composition. A nameless tune for now. He has been playing it for three months now and it gets better and better with each attempt. He is patient, practised. He is a resolute man.

He is as resolute in his pursuit of mastering the piano as he is with other aspects of life, such as business, and now, his latest "calling" as a free-market campaigner.

Mashaba is most famous for starting the first major South African, and continental, black-owned hair-care behemoth, Black Like Me.

After several jobs, first as a street con, a koppie-dice roller, a "knox man", and later, furniture salesman, insurance policy hawker, door-to-door clothing salesman and haircare products salesman (he worked for Super Kurl before setting out on his own), Mashaba's story, narrated with piercing honesty in his biography, Black Like You, is the ultimate lesson in DIY capitalism.

Does anyone out in tenderpreneur-la-la-land even remember who Habakuk Shikwane is or "The Factor"?

Subversive entrepreneurs
Old man Habakuk was one of those old-style, hands-in-the-mud, subversive entrepreneurs who consolidated his business on the back of his Hammanskraal-based cane-factory enterprise during the Mangope era, while his peer Tony Factor was something straight from the movies – 1970s movies, that is.

Factor was in general trade, an ever-pouting, charming Jewish businessman whose business model relied on his good looks and "gentlemanly" warm service. Those kind of period-era values just don't exist no more: Factor actually made his large splodges of wonga mining menschhood as a business virtue. Look, they just don't teach you that at Harvard Business School.

But back to 2012. It is partly due to Mashaba's marketing genius that he is still known today: he long ago sold the controlling stake in the company he founded, Black Like Me, to Lever Brothers, yet many of the popular enterprises of his era are just footnotes in the narrative of the black merchant-class pre-empowerment buzz.

Some of the pre-1994 black-owned companies and the media covering their dreams, follies and successes – such as Tribute magazine and Black Enterprise, and business concerns such as National Sorghum Brewery and Alex hair franchise Ramolope – have gone the way of the dinosaurs.

Somehow, Mashaba, after selling the major part of the business that made him famous, is still around. And making a hell of noise that must be irritating the powers that be.

He is now overseeing his several investments under a company called Lephatsi. The vernacular translation of Lephatsi is something so paper-sharp it could cut you to smithereens: So what is this free-market rap all about?

"Look, the campaign is really simple and straightforward," Mashaba says, still at the piano. "This country sits at a close to 40% unemployment rate, the majority of those being the youth. The black youth, specifically. How sustainable is that?

Bloody unions
"We need to engage urgently with that ticking time bomb. If we don't it will explode and wipe us all out. We cannot afford that. We need to create employment, like yesterday, but even more urgently this country needs to create conducive conditions for capitalism to thrive. Right now it is not. Right now the unions rule."

I swear, I hear him say "these bloody unions" as in "these bloody agents". But maybe not. Perhaps it is this or that "bloody them" that rings in my head.

Mashaba shares an anecdote akin to a passage in James McBride's Song Yet Sung, a harrowing tale of runaway slaves, and the blues of poverty: "Huge, bulging eyes, as Africans' faces gorge on a feast of food, and drown themselves in alcohol … sad, sorry, hopeless slaves."

Mashaba does not refer to the poor as slaves, of course. His story is set in the here and now – 18 years of democracy – and not some antediluvian slavery period. He talks about the total bleakness he has to deal with whenever he drives to areas inhabited by black folks. "So you drive there, and the situation hits you right between your eyes," he says.

"It is true, all these areas reflect my own roots, where I come from. Where I grew up, I can't stomach it anymore. How come in the 1970s and 1980s, when apartheid was at its worst, township entrepreneurship was thriving, and people had pride in themselves, and now in times of freedom, it is all so bleak?

"In the townships you are hit by the destruction of infrastructure. Hopelessness reigns. Everyone is basically on their knees asking for jobs. You look around and you shake your head. Suddenly it slaps you hard: things were never as dark and hopeless during the Boers' time. What is it we, the black leadership, are doing wrong?"

If you are in the business of scoring cheap political points your reaction to Mashaba's sentiment would be at best reflexive: "Is this man saying apartheid was better?" Of course he is not saying that.

Mashaba's passion
He lays the blame for the lethargic, wobbly economy, joblessness and bleakness on the ANC-led government that "allows itself to be led by the unions. Today nobody, not big factories, not even small businesses, are keen to employ anyone any more. In fact, all the small businesses that could have sustained a certain primary layer of the economy on the ground are dead. I am talking about job creation here. Look now, your CCMA [Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration] is killing the small man on the street."

The extent of Mashaba's passion about this will see him, the new chairperson of the Free Market Foundation, a policy advocacy group, and others taking the government to court. He says that as much as "South Africa needs to engage with capitalism, we need a Parliament that is more people-centred and not answerable to parties. We need a committed Parliament, not what we have today. As is, this Parliament seems to be beholden to Cosatu's whims or brawn power."

In the past six months Mashaba has taken his free-market message on the road, to mainstream economic and political thought-leading publications such as the Financial Mail, Forbes Africa, the Sunday Times op-ed pages, and to national television, basically arguing that loosening labour markets is the way to job creation.

Life's paradoxes can be a thing of utter beauty. Back when he was a young hothead, full of black consciousness theory and a love for workers' rights, Mashaba, born and raised in GaRamotse, in Hammanskraal, once fought for the unionisation of workers.  

Still in his teens, Mashaba travelled to Johannesburg by train to alert city-based newspapers, such as The World and its brand of militant reporters, of the inhuman working conditions of the workers in a garment factory popularly known as Sweater-Girl, in the nearby Babelegi industrial area.

The workers there were paid a miserable R3 a week, and young Mashaba could not stand by and watch his people being exploited so pitifully by their bosses. This was straight-up Bolshevik. Up to that point, none of the workers had had the balls or gumption to speak out.

That's, like, two generations ago.

How does the new free market champion square up with the socialist of yore with a clear conscience? He answers that in an unorthodox manner.

"So you tell me about socialism? Most of these people talking socialism are not even true socialists, not that I care. They are the nouveau riche, talking socialism just as long as it pays their bills. They talk socialism, but the lifestyle they live … ? Even I, a businessman, can't compete with them."

And then he says something that struck me as truly prophetic, or could have been prophetic before the Wall Street crash and the blow-up of the world economy several years ago.

"I believe that the true genius of capitalism, imperfect as it is, is that it is a natural system of societies' evolution."

What do you mean?

"Which other economic system do you have which has altered their countries, sustained middle classes, sustained economies and the free flow of cash, improved healthcare and provided jobs? Just show me a country that has really made it big using socialism as their trading philosophy? Even the biggest modern communist party in the world practises capitalism! Whoa!"

But if you probe his intentions further, he is quick to say: "I am not a politician … I have no interest in running for office at all or working for a party. All I'm fighting for is for work. Yes, I am rich, but I am not Santa bearing gifts to our people. I am saying 'create jobs and allow our people to do things for themselves: buy houses, trade with whoever they wish to'. Let's be grown up about this.

"How is the government spending billions and billions of rands on social welfare going to create jobs? Instead of creating or helping to create jobs, the government is helping to create dependence. That's madness."

But why is Mashaba speaking now?

He says that the silence of the wealthy, the silence of the intellectuals and the silence of the masses is not only failing the ANC as a party, but the ANC-led government as well.

Received caution
"Why should I keep quiet when the country is up in flames? Why should I be afraid? Of what? Of who? We are not in a martial-law state here. I am not afraid of anyone, but my conscience. I ask myself: Will it ever betray me? I wonder."

And so do I as I pack my notebook and step out to catch my cab.

I wonder: Are we about to experience a truly robust debate of what is good for the country? We have seen the ANC taking to the streets against a perceived insult to African culture. With the likes of Mashaba and Nedbank's Reuel Khoza speaking directly to power, I wonder whether  we are seeing a new development: that of the wealthy, especially the black wealthy, taking on the politically mighty?

For too long in South Africa many have been silenced by the received caution that if you ever speak, you will never eat in this town (country) again. But does it still hold?

The delegates will provide the answer. Mangaung 2012 will tell. We are holding our breath.

Clearly for the likes of Mashaba, not for much longer. And it feels just right.

Herman Mashaba's memoir Black Like You: An Autobiography, co-written with Isabella Morris, was published by MM.E Publishers

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Bongani Madondo
Bongani Madondo
Author:Sigh The Beloved Country(Picador) Essays On Photography. Joburg Review. Essays NewYorker/Aperture/S'Times.

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