Search­ing for a life story on Joburg streets with­out names


The life story of Her­man Mashaba, the self-made cos­met­ics ty­coon who bucked the apartheid sys­tem by mak­ing a for­tune sell­ing black hair­care prod­ucts, is well told in his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, Black Like You. And what bet­ter place to read the book to pre­pare for an in­ter­view with Mashaba, the DA mayor of the city, than in Joburg’s own city li­brary? That way, I thought, I could reac­quaint my­self with both the city and Mashaba’s own telling of his jour­ney from poverty.

Driv­ing in the city cen­tre has never been for sissies, and even less so now. It’s a numb­ing con­fu­sion of nos­top­ping and no-park­ing signs, one-way streets and roads with­out names. Not nar­row enough to be called charm­ing, Joburg’s streets are hardly wide enough for cars, minibus taxis, the Rea Vaya lanes bi­sect­ing them and count­less park­ing pro­fes­sors. Even now, I’m un­sure of the pro­to­col for driv­ing in the Rea Vaya lanes, but it seems gov­erned by whether you’re able, and will­ing, to mount the con­crete lane mark­ers de­signed to dis­suade you from go­ing Rea Vaya — by car.

“Where do peo­ple park here?” I asked a se­cu­rity guard. He shrugged, and said you have to come early. I found a place a few blocks from the li­brary and, af­ter pay­ing off a park­ing pro­fes­sor in an orange bib, I made my way to the li­brary.

I walked past the old Li­brary Gar­dens Ho­tel, a burnt-out shell bor­dered by a block-long rec­tan­gle of tall wild grass en­closed in ra­zor wire. Whether this ad hoc art in­stal­la­tion was in­ten­tional was not clear, but the lit­tle patch of green none­the­less pro­vided a wel­come respite from the con­crete and grime and penisen­large­ment signs that must make vis­i­tors think most of Joburg’s men are se­verely want­ing in the trouser depart­ment.

The in­ner city is big on func­tion but small on form, with­out the slight­est con­ces­sion to beau­ti­ful sur­round­ings. There is not the mer­est knee-bend to aes­thet­ics. I passed the cor­ner where the old Liz Ho­tel, wa­ter­ing hole to Star hacks, once stood. Now there is only a patch of weeds, gone to seed, un­kempt but not en­tirely out of place in an area where the ANC and In­de­pen­dent News­pa­pers are the neigh­bours.

Out­side the li­brary it­self stands a statue be­queathed to the city by its for­mer ANC rulers. Ti­tled

Democ­racy is Di­a­logue, it fea­tures a big­ger-than-life woman with a baby on her back, a Molo­tov cock­tail in one hand and a “Democ­racy is Di­a­logue” plac­ard in the other. Its as­pect is dis­tinctly Bol­she­vik and I gazed at it for some time, more in dis­be­lief than in won­der. Fac­ing it is an elec­tronic hoard­ing show­ing a pic­ture of a man in a grey suit who, af­ter some time, I recog­nised as the Rev Bey­ers Naudé.

The li­brary is shielded be­hind an “in­vis­i­ble” se­cu­rity fence, so there’ll be no storm­ing these por­tals of learn­ing with­out first ne­go­ti­at­ing this bar­rier. In any event, a sign on the fenc­ing de­clared the place was closed, and would only open at 1.30pm on that day. So I killed some time by go­ing to the bank, which was de­serted, and which seemed as good a branch as any if you don’t like stand­ing in queues.

When at last the li­brary opened, I con­tin­ued my quest to get my hands on Black Like You. I was in­ter­ested to see how the li­brary, opened in 1932, had changed in the 40 years since I used to go there. In the in­ter­net age, a visit to a li­brary is a lot like vis­it­ing a mu­seum, and the place hadn’t changed much at all, al­though the floors seemed to shine a bit more.

I tip­toed to the in­quiries desk, anx­ious not to leave marks on the gleam­ing sur­face, to be told Black Like

You was in African Stud­ies, on the third floor. “It looks brand new,” I said to the li­brar­ian who even­tu­ally re­trieved the book from a locked glass case. “It is,” she said. “We’ve just got it. You’re the first per­son to read it.”

It was worth the wait and the ef­fort: Mashaba’s life story is tes­ta­ment to a man of re­mark­able courage, not to men­tion town­ship smarts. Brought up in near poverty in GaRamotse town­ship in the old Bo­phuthatswana, Mashaba cut his teeth in business by sell­ing dagga, as a state­ment of his in­de­pen­dence and de­fi­ance, rather than join­ing his friends work­ing in white peo­ple’s gar­dens where, he re­marks, he would have had to ad­dress a white boy of 10 as “klein­baas”.

I es­pe­cially liked two sto­ries he tells. In one, he jour­neyed clan­des­tinely to Joburg with payslips that proved how lit­tle peo­ple were paid at a fac­tory in Bo­phuthatswana, mak­ing his way to the World newspaper where he handed the proof to jour­nal­ist Thami Mazwai. In the other story, Mashaba tells of sell­ing a stolen weld­ing ma­chine to a fear­some lo­cal gang­ster called Mo­ersekont. It seems Mo­ersekont tried to take the con­trap­tion while promis­ing the money later, but Mashaba stared him down, de­mand­ing cash up­front.

These and other sto­ries tell of a life of re­silience, a can-do at­ti­tude, and a re­fusal to play the role of the sec­ond-class cit­i­zen. Later, when I met Mashaba, I was struck by the dis­ap­point­ment he feels at the ANC govern­ment and how, in his view at least, it has be­trayed the ideals of free­dom so many gave so much for. It’s a be­trayal Mashaba is not tak­ing ly­ing down.

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