• SELF-MADE MAN: Investment magnate Herman Mashaba, who started out as a township hoodlum, says he wants unemployed young people to identify with his struggle. Picture: MARTIN RHODES

  • SELF-MADE MAN: Investment magnate Herman Mashaba, who started out as a township hoodlum, says he wants unemployed young people to identify with his struggle. Picture: MARTIN RHODES

HERMAN Mashaba, founder of the Black Like Me hair products empire, believes he has taken a risk in writing an autobiography, for in it he details his rise from township hoodlum to arch capitalist.

He sold dagga and ran gambling rings as a schoolboy breadwinner. Today he is unhappy with the government's labour laws and is working on a challenge to labour legislation in the Constitutional Court.

He wrote Black Like You (MMEmedia), with Isabella Morris, because he wants desperate youths to take heart from someone who's been there and succeeded in spite of the worst that poverty and apartheid could throw at him.

"I've opened up my whole life in this book, the good and the bad," says Mashaba. He speaks quickly, words almost tumbling over each other in his urgency to deliver his message.

"I want future generations to avoid the mistakes I made and for unemployed young people to identify with my struggle. But, it wasn't easy describing what I used to get up to."

Maybe Mashaba is concerned that it may dilute the message of his crusade to protect the free market economy in South Africa. Yet after reading his poignant rags-to-riches story, I feel it strengthens it. Here's no namby-pamby fop who cruised to riches on black economic empowerment (BEE) boards. Quite the reverse.

So, when he says he's opposed to a minimum wage, questioning in enraged tones, why an unemployed person should be prevented from working for less than R4000 a month, you need to know he used to drink water to quell his hunger pangs. Some schooldays that was all he put in his mouth.

"If some want to labour for less, why shouldn't they - how can they survive if they're not allowed to work?"

Day and night he worries about young, black, jobless people: "They will hurt us and hate us. All of us."

Mashaba understands this. He too grew up with hate - hating white people. His great grandfather was used by a farm kleinbaas in target practice. He was showing off his skills and his aim was spot on.

Mashaba's grandfather grew up without a sense of dignity and his father died when he was two years old. His domestic worker mother had no choice but to leave her young family of four to live alone in their GaRamotswe, Hammanskraal, home near Pretoria.

When today's investment magnate reached his teens the family's situation was dire. His mother had returned home due to illness, "and so the responsibility of providing for the entire household had fallen on my shoulders".

He refused to submit to being a "garden boy", choosing instead to sell the dagga he occasionally smoked. But his mother had become suspicious, so Mashaba turned to gambling. It was his job to keep law and order at the games played by locals at a nearby café. He honed the negotiation skills that would stand him in good stead in later life when selling stolen goods to a gangster.

He made enough money to attend university, but left because of student riots, to sell crockery and linen: "It didn't take me long to realise one home could only absorb a certain quantity of these - but I couldn't operate freely due to the Group Areas Act."

He was terrified of being arrested for a pass law offence.

When he began selling hair-care products for black people from the boot of his car, he knew he'd hit on something with legs. Within a year he was SuperKurl's top salesman.

In 1984 he decided to manufacture his own products and hired SuperKurl chemist, Johan Kriel, a white Afrikaner from Boksburg, to create one.

Mashaba had realis ed there were, after all, some good white people. Thereafter he could not produce his Black Like Me hair products fast enough. He had tapped into young black people's grooming needs and personal pride. Hair salons were mushrooming in townships where they, and Mashaba, neatly circumvented apartheid's business restrictions. Soon the whole country wanted his stuff.

But he was dismayed when, some years after our first democratic elections in 1994, his business was hit by rising crime such as hijacking and theft. Soon, he couldn't rely on the railways to transport his goods.

In 1997 he sold some of his empire's shares to Colgate Palmolive. But, some years on he bought them back and took Black Like Me to new heights.

By then he had long since bade farewell to his childhood haunts, having bought a mansion in Pretoria. He made headlines when a group of right-wing Afrikaners demonstrated against blacks moving into white suburbs. Former South African foreign minister, the charismatic Pik Botha, countered by throwing a welcoming cocktail party for the Mashaba family.

Herman had married, at 22, the beautiful Connie, "because I took a decision then to settle down and focus on my life and business". Today the couple count themselves fortunate to have two children.

With the advent of BEE, Mashaba found himself increasingly approached to sit on company boards - "But I didn't know what it was back then - I felt it enriched just a few people."

He has gone the broad-based BEE (BBBEE) route, buying shares in small companies, with growth potential. Today, through his Leswikeng, Phatsima and Lephatsi BBBEE initiatives, as he calls them, Mashaba has shareholdings in companies which range from mining to finance, aeronautics to information technology.

"I don't invest for social reasons, I invest to make money - it's important that everyone knows I am a capitalist. I want people to make money, to grow the economy and the country. We need more jobs."

He has created initiatives to support black artists, musicians and schoolchildren to turn them into money makers.

But his jovial mood's been replaced by something close to anger, and there's no missing his firm determination. He's not interested in the world of politics, "But we all have to take a stand."

He is furious that "thousands of black business people like me are dragged to the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration for reasons unrelated to business" and says: "We are treated like criminals."

R ecently appointed chairman of the Free Market Foundation, he is worried by the nationalis ation debate and the state of Zimbabwe. He doesn't want South Africa to end up like it. "I am not prepared to sit back and say I did nothing."

He's surprised and upset when people describe him as brave in his opposition to current labour law.

"We battled a vicious apartheid system for freedom. We won it - yet people now say they are scared to speak up. Something is wrong."

As he rises to his feet, he points out his children's picture in his book. If nothing changes here, he doesn't want them to say in coming years, "Dad, why did you let this happen?"