Growing up in GaRamotse, a village on the fringes of Pretoria, survival took priority. In an era ruled by a ruthless state intent on upholding its oppressive polices, dreams were deferred. The roles of domestic worker, gardener or miner were far more realistic careers than that of veteran South African businessman.
Herman Mashaba does not settle for second best. With his refusal to accept the status quo and stubborn determination, Mashaba conquered adversity to become that veteran South African businessman.
“I’ve always accepted my status as a human being and secondly as a person. That’s something I never really questioned. I’ve always said I’m not going to allow the next person to determine who I was on the basis of my colour,” he says.
Initially Mashaba was interested in pursuing a legal career but was advised not to because of his poor command of Afrikaans. In 1980 he enrolled for a degree majoring in Political Science and Public Administration at the University of Limpopo (formerly known as the University of the North). It was the height of Apartheid and political resistance had intensified. The University shut down indefinitely. Mashaba did not resume studies when it reopened and yet another dream was deferred.
True to his ambitious spirit he was not discouraged by what seemed to be an uncertain future. Mashaba found employment as a clerk at a local supermarket before working as a salesman selling all and sundry from the boot of his car. His second appointment as a salesman at SoftKurl, a hair product company, set in motion the making of a multimillion Rand enterprise.
“During those 19 months I saw a huge opportunity with salons springing up all over the townships, villages and the cities and the black women ready to be permed. I realised this was going to be the market of the future and thought ‘why not try to do it on my own?’”
Mashaba found an unlikely business partner in Johan Kriel, a colleague and pharmacist. In South Africa in 1984 social interaction across colour lines was rare. It was certainly unheard of for a black man to approach a white man to join him in business, but Mashaba is a risk-taker. Kriel developed a perm lotion formula that reduced the production time and expenses allowing what would become known as Black Like Me to compete with SuperKurl.
A generous loan from a friend and businessman bankrolled the launch of his company. With limited funds available for marketing Mashaba and his business partners, including his wife and current CEO Connie, needed a name that would capture the imagination of their target market. They settled on Black Like Me, fully aware that the name could easily attract unwanted attention from the tyrannical Apartheid regime, but were undaunted by the possibility nonetheless. Fortunately, the iron fists realised that it was a commercial venture rather than a political party. A labour of love, Black Like Me was officially launched on Valentine’s Day in 1985.
As much as the Black Like Me brand tried to resist political connotation, it inadvertently restored black identity in a society where it was so easily and often misappropriated, making it a runaway success with its target market. “It really caught the attention of the market overnight. It was at the time when black people were looking for something to inspire them. It was the right time, we had the right name, the right products, the right pricing and the right marketing.
“The market was very receptive from the beginning. Look at our marketing campaigns from the beginning; we’ve been driven to inspire the nation, really getting people out there to value themselves as human beings and we had the name to back it up,” he says with quiet confidence.
By 1993, Mashaba and his wife dominated the local hair industry with Black Like Me’s continued success. For a fleeting moment, all seemed lost. In November the couple was alerted to an alleged arson attack on their Mabopane factory near Pretoria. Mashaba vowed that the business would rise out of the ashes.
He exudes humility when he recalls seeing the factory engulfed by flames. Life, as he knew it, changed overnight. For him the incident was an amber-lit reminder that change is constant. It strengthened his resolve never to resist transformation. Over and above an innate business mind, Mashaba’s ability to accept and adapt to change is perhaps his most invaluable asset.
Insurance did not compensate for the damage to the factory, forcing Mashaba to finance the rebuilding of the factory in Midrand, Johannesburg. Thereafter, Black Like Me enjoyed even more success than before, a testament to his unwavering resilience and unshakeable desire to succeed.
Despite Mashaba’s serendipitous rise to the top, his status as an internationally respected businessman was hard-earned. Hard work, self-determination and a proactive attitude are the pillars on which he has built his legacy. His warm tone quickly turns stern when he speaks of realizing one’s full potential.
“If you are not a hard worker forget it. Your chances of making it are very slim. You cannot allow other people to determine your fate. You must take personal responsibility for your life. You decide the fate for yourself. We need to get our people out there to understand that if you really want something only you can make it happen,”