Hlengiwe Nhlabathi tagged along on the campaign trail with DA mayoral candidate for Joburg Herman Mashaba – from his elegant home to the dusty townships where the votes lie
It was once a grand and shiny instrument that was dauntingly complex. But after about five years of secret lessons, Herman Mashaba now glides his fingers effortlessly across the row of ivory keys on his grand piano.
A soulful, jazzy melody fills the air and his emotions explode as he plays anything from Duke Ellington to Marvin Gaye, surrounded by friends and family on special days in the comfort of his beautiful home.
Sometimes he plays just for quiet personal reflection, something he will often need now that he is a politician – a new path in his life that is already taking its toll on him.
He prefers to be called a public servant, not a politician. The word ‘politician’, he insists, has been corrupted by the ANC-led government.
A striking hand-painted family portrait of the renowned businessman, his wife, Connie, daughter Khensani (21) and son Rhulani (19) hangs in the corner in the family room leading up to the pool. A smiling Mashaba is leaning on his piano.
The multimillionaire, who unashamedly talks about his privileges over the past 30 years, recently took the plunge into the murky world of politics.
The ultimate price of that, which may end up being an all-time blow to the ANC in the upcoming municipal elections, would be Mashaba taking over as mayor of Johannesburg on a DA ticket. Having always religiously voted for the ANC since the dawn of democracy, Mashaba broke ranks in the 2014 elections when he put his cross next to the DA’s logo.
Just like his secret piano lessons, becoming the mayor of one of the largest economies in Africa is a formidable task, but one that he is confident of mastering.
The trick with the piano – especially when playing from the heart – is that you must think really fast to translate that through your fingertips, says Mashaba.
If he had to choose to do anything else in another life, he would be a musician.
His friends have told stories of how Mashaba is all about fun and dance on the weekends when he invites them over.
His elegant home is neatly tucked away in the posh suburb of Atholl in Sandton.
It is a mere 15-minute drive from here to the Alexandra township. For those not so privileged to own cars – the people Mashaba watches trudging the road to Africa’s richest square mile, Sandton City – it is a journey of many steps.
Some of his relatives still live in Alex, a place he has frequented since his mayoral candidacy announcement in January. Desperate poverty reigns supreme in Dark City – as it is commonly known – an overcrowded place that has bred musicians, politicians and gangsters.
Businessman-turned-politician Herman Mashaba with his son Rhulani, wife Connie and daughter Khensani at their home in Atholl, Johannesburg PHOTO: Ayi Leshabane
From capitalist to politician
The humongous automatic black gates to Mashaba’s property open slowly after a brief conversation with a security guard through the intercom.
Khensani, with the family’s snow-white puppy carefully tucked under her arm, graciously leads me through the entrance hall.
Mashaba stops in his tracks as his wife fixes his tie. It is 8.30am and today Mashaba has to be out in Dobsonville to speak to wannabe entrepreneurs.
In the space of four weeks, Mashaba has criss-crossed Joburg, visiting impoverished communities as far apart as Zandspruit, Noordgesig and Alexandra.
He has little time for rest while campaigning. He constantly talks about the importance of boosting small businesses and job creation.
“Vote for change,” he tells potential voters. “Don’t give us a blank cheque. If we fail, remove us.” Perhaps it is his patience and empathy that convinces people – they even take up DA membership on the spot and don T-shirts to prove their new allegiance.
On the campaign trail, Mashaba’s team nods vigorously as he speaks. He is often interrupted by a middle-aged gentleman who hands him a bottle of ice-cold water.
This tall figure is always close to Mashaba. Apart from carrying his sun hat and water, he takes pictures and videos to put on social media.
He chips in with a word or two, sometimes in Afrikaans, explaining just how great the country would be under the DA.
These community meet-and-greets have attracted an average of 100 people at a time. These may not be overwhelming turnouts, but Mashaba seems to derive a lot of satisfaction from the conversations.
“This is not what people have signed up for,” he mutters repeatedly wherever he goes.
It is not just his unhappiness with the ANC that drove him into politics – he says it was mostly the guilt of watching people live in squalor while he lived comfortably.
He could have taken the easy route of being a DA funder, but dishing out money was not enough for him. He felt a need to take on the responsibility of making a direct difference.
He believed the DA needed much more than just his money. Blacks, he says, need to stand up and say “we are not happy with the way things are going in this country”.
“Complicating my life is worth it. Sitting on the sidelines, I actually started feeling strange. I even felt insulted that people were asking me why I should worry, because I’d made my money. Making money is important. I’m a capitalist. But what happens when you make money and see fellow South Africans suffering?
“I felt guilty. I thought, why can’t I use my privileged position to find a way to assist?”
Although he doubted his capabilities at first when it came to taking a leadership position, his decision felt justified when the markets were sent tumbling as a result of Zuma firing Nhlanhla Nene as finance minister.
Taking personal responsibility, he asked himself: “If not me, then who?”
On the outskirts of Johannesburg, the Zandspruit township has been the scene of many service-delivery protests. Despite a constant stream of politicians promising a better life, little has changed since it sprung up just after the 1994 transition.
It is overcrowded and proper sanitation here is still a distant dream. It is normal to see human waste scattered along the dusty, narrow, potholed streets. Live wires hang dangerously from shack to shack and lie, perilously, on the ground. Rubbish is strewn at almost every turn, creating a haven for starving dogs.
Crime is rife here, and women live in fear of being raped, robbed and/or killed. But life goes on. The entrance to the settlement is always teeming with locals lined up with makeshift stalls that block the narrow, bumpy gravel road. Here you can buy anything from vegetables to facecloths. Idle residents sit outside their rusty shacks hoping for better days, while some dull their boredom with liquor purchased using money they have managed to scrape together somehow.
Khensani, who is accompanying her father on this visit, describes life here as “traumatic”.
As the party navigates the small pathways, dodging puddles of smelly and dirty water from blocked drains and leaking water pipes, this post-1994 environment is a living lament to the realities of many families in this country.
Mashaba spends more than an hour in a dilapidated hostel where people share tiny rooms. Only 6% of them put their trust in the DA in the 2011 municipal elections. The area remains a stronghold for the ANC, while the IFP are a close second. In the 2014 polls, only 7% of the people of Ward 75 gave the DA their votes.
Less than half of Alex is employed. Of those who are employed, most earn an average of R2 400 a month.
Mashaba’s eyes wander around as he scrutinises the cracked walks and collapsed roofing at the Alexandra hostel, a known IFP stronghold. Its dark passages reek of urine.
He promises to bring in engineers for a “quick evaluation”. His team cautions that the ANC-controlled city council has invested R500 million to upgrade single-sex hostels in the city and will try to stop him. But he stubbornly insists he will “raise” money to do the basics. This puts a smile on the face of Mduduzi Mchunu, who shares a room with his two brothers. A tiny bed and steel cupboard stand where the men keep their clothes in a corner of their tiny room.
Mashaba looks pleased as people concede the only way out of their misery might be a vote for the DA.
One of the people saying so is Delani Majola (30), who has for five years shared a room with his friend Vusi Biyela (20) at the hostel.
The men are so convinced by Mashaba’s message that they readily pay R10 to receive their DA membership cards.
“This visit has opened our eyes,” says Majola.
Back in the day, Mashaba frequented Alexandra to sell hair products to salons. He shyly admits that his Alex relatives visit him more often than he does them.
“I suppose it’s always nice for them to come and have a nice warm shower once in a while,” he says.
He confides that one of his relatives is battling with drug addiction, and he and his wife are paying the rehabilitation costs. He plans to tackle drug abuse head-on should he snatch the mayoral chain from the ANC’s Parks Tau.
“There are not enough jobs for the youth to take advantage of.”
‘It’s the Black Like Me guy!’
Most people on the campaign trail are not sure who Mashaba is until someone explains that he is “Mr Black Like Me”.
His wealthy status is a long way from his early years spent dealing/using dagga and gambling. Since then, he has held fort as the chairperson of the ultracapitalist Free Market Foundation and earned himself a place as one of the main enemies of the left and its unions for his campaign against what he sees as South Africa’s crippling labour laws.
This captain of his own ship remains unshaken in the belief that people must be given a chance in life to propel themselves.
But how does being part of an institution that is accountable to party leader Mmusi Maimane interfere with his life? Not much, he insists.
It’s all about understanding the party values. He understands that he will need to sing from the same hymn book moving forward and steer clear of policy positions contradictory to the DA’s.
In Noordgesig, an 80-year-old coloured township in southern Johannesburg, he listens attentively as residents complain about drugs, unemployment, a vile-smelling river that is contaminated by sewage, asbestos-related tuberculosis and government’s failure to build a proper school.
Gulping more ice-cold water, Mashaba fends off residents’ accusations that politicians only remember people like them during elections.
“Dis reg [That’s right],” says a fed-up man as others nod approvingly.
Shirley Arnolds, who is among those leading the anti-politician charge, extends her arm to give Mashaba shade under her floral umbrella.
“It’s been 80 years; nothing has changed. Our conditions are still the same, but year in and out, politicians come here to make promises,” adds another resident.
Mashaba tells them: “We are not here because of elections, but to bring democracy to power.”
He goes on to give groceries to a family but cautions that they should not expect this every day. They must get up and work, he says, and reminds them to vote DA no matter what.
He then goes on to bemoan how the ANC has been punishing or neglecting coloured townships.
“I don’t know why the ANC is depriving our people to actually get that first step into employment and climb up the ladder.”
Mashaba was just 19 when he got his first job as a dispatch clerk at a Spar supermarket earning a mere R175 a month after dropping out of varsity. He worked that job “like it was my own business, to acquire the necessary experience to become something better”.
That’s what people need, to be given a chance,” he says.
His second and last job was at a furniture store, where he was offered R100 more.
Most of what informs Mashaba’s views against government’s well-intentioned nannying of its citizens is the fact that he is a self-starter. He believes that even the dishing out of food parcels disempowers people.
Life in the DA
The party’s Johannesburg chairperson, Khume Ramulifho, says Mashaba is a key asset to the party, as he has a wealth of knowledge on how the DA can grow the economy and fight unemployment.
Ramulifho was one of the people who proposed that Mashaba be co-opted into the provincial executive committee when he announced that he planned to join the DA soon after the general elections in 2014.
Ramulifho telephoned an excited Maimane, who had previously pursued Mashaba to take up membership. After all, the DA had not just gained a prominent icon, but a successful business mind.
The family man
Back at home, Mashaba collapses on to a huge cream-coloured couch on the patio. It has been a long, hard day.
My eyes wander towards the crisp, blue, sparkling pool where his blonde-haired personal assistant, Isabella Morris, stands chatting to his elegantly dressed spouse Connie, who is in a mustard two-piece African-print ensemble and stilettos.
Mrs Mashaba does not like strangers coming to her home. She is a straight talker and is open about the fact that she “never signed up for this political limelight”, but is learning to adjust to it.
“He knows what he is doing. I’m not going to be speaking on his behalf; I can only be there,” she says.
“He is a man of integrity and is very respectful towards others. If he continues along those values, he will make a good mayor. He is a very strict person who wants delivery, so it will be an interesting attribute to have, especially in dealing with lazy public servants.”
She is reluctant to express a political view but assures me she often engages in heated debates with her husband, be they about politics or business.
“But a lot of the time, at the end of the day, it looks like he does beat me. Or maybe I just let him win,” she giggles.
The accidental activist
Mashaba’s first attempt to master the science of politics was 36 year ago. He was in his second year of study at Turfloop, now known as the University of Limpopo, in 1980.
He became a student leader by default after a squabble erupted one Saturday between rival soccer groups. One group accused the other of being informants for the apartheid police.
Then, on Monday morning, young Mashaba woke up to notices splashed around the campus alerting students to a mass meeting that was to take place that night. He was unsettled by this because he had a test the next day, but he knew he had to attend.
When he arrived at the hall, students were singing revolutionary songs, a skill he could not muster. He was just curious to know why they had been called so that he could go back and study for his test.
An impatient Mashaba then took to the podium to chair the meeting and pleaded with whoever had called the meeting to address them.
A fellow student then arose to unpack the spy story.
By the time the meeting ended, there was chaos on campus and some students were arrested. Mashaba was elected into a six-member student advisory committee, which negotiated their release and engaged with the Turfloop administration to resolve other grievances.
As the protest continued, the army descended on the campus and management was forced to shut down the university.
He rustled up money for a taxi home to Hammanskraal, outside Pretoria. He left most of his clothes and textbooks behind, and took only what he could carry on his back. Little did he know that it was to be the end of his academic career.
Mashaba feels insulted when some people suggest that he is being used as a black token by a so-called white party to grow its constituency in black communities. He believes this cynicism is an attempt to block people keen on transforming their lives.
“You are giving whites unnecessary credit. I didn’t join the DA because I was joining whites, but for their policies. Colour is immaterial; I don’t know why people are obsessed with colour. We fought the evil system of apartheid so we could normalise our society.”
He is confident that voters will flock to him on election day and the ANC will lose control not only of Johannesburg, but other metros.
In the meantime, he’ll be drinking a lot more ice-cold water on the campaign trail.