How did you get into the hair business, which you are so well known for?

My schooling was full of disruptions as a result of the period I grew up. When I went to University the idea was to study law but I was advised against it as my Afrikaans was rather dismal. So I studied for B Admin degree majoring in Political Science and Public Administration. In the second year of my studies the university closed down and I found myself at home with no education, work experience or future prospects.

I managed to get a job but after working for a salary for several months I realised that I wasn’t going to get anywhere. I value my independence, so in 1982 I bought a car and started working as a door-to-door sales rep selling dinner services and hair products from the boot of my car. Within 19 months I knew that I had to move on, even though I was the top salesman in the company. I wanted to take personal responsibility for my life. At that time hair salons were mushrooming all over the place in townships; I saw market potential for the product and since I had prior knowledge of the industry it was the next best step. 

Herman Mashaba, one of South Africa’s most loved entrepreneurs is no stranger to hard work, challenges and the ultimate sweet taste of success. His autobiography aptly entitled “Black Like You”

What do you think is the secret ingredient of a successful entrepreneur?

One has to have a strong work culture. That is not negotiable. You also need stability in your life. One decision that I treasure in my life was to get married 30 years ago to stabilize my life because I knew I wouldn’t be able to get far without any personal security in my life. One must also be a risk-taker. Being a successful business person requires one to be able to take risks and do what others haven’t done before. You have to push your own boundaries!

When your factory burned down did you think that was the end of your dream?

I remember that morning being interviewed by television journalists whilst the factory was burning and the thing I said to them was, “We will bounce back” and like they say the rest is history.

What inspired you to tell your story?

As black people we tend to downplay and skirt around issues that have affected us deeply. We don’t deal with these matters openly. What happened to me was not of my own making but I am not ashamed of it. 90 % of the people I grew up with didn’t survive and I feel that as a people we need to evaluate and possibly change our value system and the way we operate by acknowledging and discussing the way we conduct ourselves as a people.

Justice Moseneke describes you as a “true son of the soil”, what traits do you think make you fit that term?

To be honest I don’t know. I didn’t go into business to be a role model. I went into business to survive. But along the way one has to give back to the community. You have to be good to your staff and the people around you as that is what sustains your business in the long run. My overall agenda is executed with a realisation that my survival and protection is dependent on the wellbeing of the people around me. Once you have people around you living a life as successful as yours that’s when life has meaning and becomes exciting!

Why did you get involved in the policy advocacy group, the Free Market Foundation?

For the past 18 years, the left has understandably, dominated our country’s economic landscape as we were coming out of the apartheid system and many were of the impression that capitalism was oppressive as it was adopted by the apartheid regime. As chairman I am excited to be in a position where we can engage the South African public and show them that there is an alternative economic system that is endorsed by us. I am a firm believer in a capitalist free market and so I find it a privilege to be in a position where I can educate people about the free market.

What are the plans for the Free Market Foundation going forward?

As a body we have adopted three initiatives that we will focus on this year. The first one is the Citizen Empowerment Project where we will be going into the townships and communities with an aim to educate everyone about free market principles across all the media platforms.

The second initiative will be to challenge the Labour Laws in the Constitution Court as we believe our current labour laws are responsible for the country’s failure to produce black entrepreneurs and for the high levels of unemployment in our country. At the moment we are engaging but if forced to we will take this to the Constitution Court. Our last initiative is to bring in international luminaries from all over the world to share their experiences with free market principles. We will be running workshops, seminars and even road-shows in our schools and universities to spread the wealth of knowledge and share this ethos.

Are you expecting a fight from Cosatu with regards to labour laws?

Many people ask me that question but considering that when it comes to the high level of employment they will gain the most, I believe that Cosatu should be our biggest supporter. They have a critical role to play because as much as one supports Free Market principles we cant be naïve and think all business people are ethical. There needs to be a body that regulates and ensures workers are not exploited. 

What one thing worries you about the youth?

Young people need to know that everyday a person needs to wake up and either go to work or go to school. We need to eradicate the culture of doing nothing and waiting for a social grant. A living is earned not handed to you. I have learnt early on in my life to take responsibility for my life and not expect anyone to drive my life or blame anyone for my circumstance. It is this that led to my involvement in the Free Market Foundation as I am totally against the socialist movement as it gives people the misguided notion that leads to entitlement. The role of the government is not to give hand-outs but to create an environment that supports 50 million players, not just you as an individual! You have to fight in order to survive in that crowd.

What can you say is the reason for the anger in the youth at the moment?

A lot has gone wrong with the youth and I place the blame squarely at the feet of the older generation. We are leaving kids to their own devices from a very young age. As parents we are not fully invested in our children. If you look at other races, parents protect their kids and get involved in their lives even before they are born. They plan for their kids; it just doesn’t happen by mistake as seems to be the norm in our black communities! As a result they are responsible for them throughout their lives. Yes, mistakes happen but a large majority plan for their kids.

Our young women need to be dissuaded from having kids without knowing who the father is, and young men need to be told that having children all over the place and not taking responsibility for them does not make them men. This debate is uncomfortable but necessary as this kind of lifestyle catches up with us as a community. All children born out of these conditions end up abandoned, angry, and on the streets committing all sorts of heinous crimes. We need to stop and look at ourselves as a people and question the way we are raising our families and if changes need to be made, be honest with ourselves and make the change.

As the older generation we have to take a proactive role in guiding the youth. We can’t sit back and wait for fate or luck.

There is a lot of concern about the lack of skills and training among the black collective in business. How can this be resolved?

I never got to finish my education so I am a firm believer in partnerships. People should surround themselves with the best personnel that they can find. I am not adverse to buying people that possess a skills set that I need in my business. When I started Black Like Me I didn’t do it alone, I put a team together that had the skills I needed from production, sales and financial and that’s what made us successful.

Can the gap between rich and poor still be blamed on apartheid?

Absolutely not! We’ve had 18 years to address this issue and our failure is obvious. The past happened yes, but if we really want to move on, we need to concern ourselves with our future. Lets open the market, teach our kids to be entrepreneurs and make it easy for the market to employ our people. Our restrictive labour laws make it difficult for our people to get jobs. All these issues are post apartheid!

What advice would you give government to eradicate poverty?

We need to invest in educating our children. At the moment our education system is in crisis and we are failing our people. As an employer as much as I would like to hire children from the current learning system, I find they are not functional. The quality of skills among our people is shameful and we are not taking education very seriously. For government to give the impression that we are making strides is disingenuous. The least they can do is to admit it’s failing and work towards finding a solution.

Government also needs to focus less on getting equity for black people and prioritise skills development. Big corporates can be pulled into these initiatives. Equity requires money which people don’t have access to. But if businesses invest in good social programmes that help young people get the best education this will ensure that they will be productive members of society without disrupting business. BEE should be run, not as a punitive measure, but as an incentive for people to do good deeds.

What is your business philosophy?

My philosophy is simple. I have to wake up every morning and go to work in order to survive!