Herman Mashaba with his autobiography, Black Like Me, written with Isabella Morris, during an interview at Fredman Towers in Sandton. It's available for R195 at good bookstores. Picture: Itumeleng English

In a high up, sunny office with a near-panoramic view of Sandton’s west side, 52-year-old Herman Mashaba is fielding calls on his cellphone, which bursts into clashing cymbals and loud song every time someone calls.

He’s just flown in from Switzerland, where he was one of the speakers at the St Gallen symposium, an annual event aimed at fostering intergenerational and intercultural dialogue between the world’s decision makers. You wouldn’t think so, because he’s bright-eyed and full of smiles, and ready to be interviewed about Black Like You, the story of his extraordinary life as an entrepreneur and founder of the iconic black hair brand, Black Like Me.

One of South Africa’s earliest black entrepreneurs who built a successful business during the restrictive days of apartheid, it was only much later that Mashaba joined the BEE bandwagon and today his investment company sits on a string of diverse investments.

Predictably, much has been made of him over the years, and had I not read the book over the weekend, I’d be approaching Mashaba with some reservation, suspecting the book might be a narcissistic tome designed to promote him and make even more money than he has already. He is, after all, a self-confessed capitalist and exudes great confidence in his own abilities in business.

However, he says that the book was not his idea at all, and he was cajoled into it by Moky Makura, his long-time friend, publisher, TV presenter and author of Africa’s Greatest Entrepreneurs (2008).

It doesn’t take long to see why Makura saw such merit in Mashaba’s story. It is an extraordinary rags-to-riches tale that straddles the apartheid era and post-democratic South Africa, embracing all the elements of a good story – suspense, romance, fun and victory over sometimes crippling adversity. And, not least, it contains numerous nuggets of insight into how an entrepreneur thinks, manipulates the system to his advantage and survives against the odds.

It is also beautifully told, without pretentiousness, by Isabella Morris, who gathered the information from Mashaba over two years.

Mashaba sees the primary worth of his book being “to show the youth that personal success can be created out of any situation, no matter how disadvantaged it is”.

“My story might help one or two young entrepreneurs in the making,” he says. “I found a way to navigate and manipulate the environment, and it bothers me that what is being created in South Africa today is an entitlement culture, which is dangerous and unsustainable.”

Mashaba was brought up in near-poverty in GaRamotse in Hammanskraal by his sisters while his absent domestic-worker mother worked long hours to provide what little she could.

As a youth, he was deeply suspicious of whites, fuelled by stories he heard from those around him of their experiences working as domestic workers and gardeners. Instead of submitting to the same fate, Mashaba chose to gamble and “sell dope” to make money. And like his friends, womanising and drinking was a big part of his life as a young man. But the one thing he wouldn’t do was work as a gardener for whites, who he’d grown to hate.

So he started a journey that saw him achieve heights that few could have imagined back then. The book follows his story through a short and volatile stint at university and a few dead-end jobs, until he finds his calling as a salesman.

Mashaba sold everything from insurance to crockery and then he discovered black haircare products and, with the help of Connie, his partner and wife of over 30 years, an empire was born.

The Black Like Me story is as fascinating as Mashaba’s own.

While working as a sales rep for SuperKurl, he found in one of his colleagues a potential partner. Ironically, he was a white Afrikaner, pharmacist Johan Kriel.

“In 1984, blacks and whites rarely had any kind of social interaction, and it was certainly unheard of for a black man to approach a white man to join him in business,” recalls Mashaba in the book.

Kriel came up with a perm lotion that substantially reduced the normal production time, allowing Black Like Me to compete with SuperKurl – “proving we could produce our quality products in a factory 20 times smaller than theirs”, recalls Mashaba.

Mashaba, with Kriel and an old workmate at SuperKurl, Joseph Molwantwa, launched Black Like Me on Valentine’s Day in 1985, with a R30 000 loan from Mashaba’s friend, businessman Walter Dube.

Within seven months, the debt was repaid to Dube, and all the partners were earning well.

“Of course we bought ourselves the luxuries we felt we deserved – fine clothes, new homes and fancy cars, but if we thought we could spend with abandon, Connie quickly brought us back to reality,” recalls Mashaba in his book.

Disaster struck Mashaba’s business early one morning in November 1993, heralded by a phone call from his security guard with the news: “There is smoke coming out of the factory.” Soon afterwards, Mashaba and his wife watched helplessly as flames devoured his business, yet he told his staff that “we will rise out of the ashes”.

Insurance failed to pay out for the contents of the building, so Mashaba had to personally fund the re-establishment of his factory, this time in Midrand. He admits today, “I thought I was finished.”

Yet optimism and resilience are hallmark traits in Mashaba, and he also puts great stock in “the Man upstairs” (he’s a Methodist).

“How else would I have survived being a bad teenager selling dope? My factory burning down… things happen for a reason,” he says.

It was business acumen and pride that came into play, however, when Mashaba was made offers for his business. In 1997 Black Like Me “married” Colgate-Palmolive in a deal that saw Mashaba retain 25 percent of his company. But it didn’t work out and Mashaba soon bought his company back, glad to take the reins again.

“Through the Colgate partnership I got exposed to the corporate environment, and I’m grateful for that. I’ve never had the inclination to sit on a board. I like to be the driving force. I have a strong work ethic, and I want to be one of those people who never retire.

At the moment I’m still working like a 20-year-old,” he smiles.

Today, Mashaba is executive chairman of Lephatsi Investments, a company he formed three years ago after joining the BEE bandwagon. Worth about R1 billion, Lephatsi operates in mining, construction and the logistics sectors.

But asked what his best decision ever was, he doesn’t hesitate. “Marrying Connie,” he says. It’s a lovely tribute to his wife, and his commitment to his family is articulated thus in his book: “I have often had to be absent from home, when work has demanded more of me than seemed fair, but I have always had the luxury of home and family to return to. My family comprises not only Connie and Khensani and Rhulani (his children) – it also includes my extended family, my sisters, in-laws, nieces and nephews, friends, and even some colleagues. Without these people to share it with, my success would be worth nothing at all.”