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.