Herman Mashaba is not your typical politician. Although in his earlier life he was a community activist, he became known more as a black entrepreneur who popularised hair care products among black women in the South African townships in the mid-1980s. It was his sense of timing that made his products popular among women of this era. He read the signs of the times and coined it as a businessman.
Mashaba took many by surprise when he was publicly unveiled in December 2015 as a Democratic Alliance (DA) mayoral candidate for Johannesburg. Prior to this move he had been chairman of the conservative Free Market Foundation. Outside of this, very little was known of his political credentials to the general public. He won the mayoral contest in 2016, a feat the DA achieved with the unlikely support of the far-left Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), setting in motion a tumultuous love affair between the two parties, at times rocked by threats of separation.
The alliance between the DA and the EFF endured for more than two years, proving that pragmatic considerations in politics can transcend the Left and Right ideological divides. Over time Mashaba won the respect of the EFF, notwithstanding his liberal political orientation. His embrace of liberalism, with emphasis on free markets and creating a business-friendly environment; populist nationalism, with accent on anti-immigrant rhetoric while pushing for pro-poor policies; and relentless anti-corruption drive, marked him out as a pragmatic leader who is attuned to public sentiment. He was able to discern the shift in the political pendulum in South Africa towards the embrace of a brand of nationalistic politics long before this was confirmed by the outcomes of the 2019 general elections.
The Italian liberal socialist Norberto Bobbio has pointed out in his work, Left and Right: The Significance of a Political Distinction, that the distinction between these two ideological fissures has become blurred in the face of changing realities of politics and complexities of policy implementation in an increasingly fluid global environment. This has been no more evident than in the rise of populist nationalism in the wake of the 2007/8 global financial crisis, driven by maverick leaders such as the American president Donald Trump (the first president never to hold elected office since Dwight Eisenhower), Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, Viktor Orbán of Hungary, Matteo Salvini of Italy, and Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil.
These leaders are political centaurs who simultaneously brandish a banner of right-wing politics and populist nationalism, while advancing a narrative that promises practical solutions to tough socio-economic problems. These conservative-cum-populist leaders have no clearly discernible doctrine, but grapple with social realities and ride the wave of shifting popular preferences. They tap into the pent-up anger of the downtrodden and underclasses and formulate political statements that promise economic salvation, focusing on practical challenges rather than on abstract ideology, and eschewing elaborate rhetoric grounded in ambiguous political manifestos.
In his study, If Mayors Ruled the World, Benjamin Barber points out that effective mayors around the world tend to possess eccentric qualities, they tell it like it is, they are free from the strictures of political ideologies of their parties, they get things done, and are more practical than ideological. Barber’s observations cover such figures as former mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg, ex-mayor of London Boris Johnson, and the longest serving and popular mayor of Moscow, Yury Luzhkov, whose tenure survived several Russian presidents including Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medmedev, before his ousting in 2010. The Kremlin struggled to rein in Luzhkov because of his popularity and his insistence on crafting his own political script. Another former of mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, was seen as something of a maverick who refused to pander to the ideological dictates of the Labour Party, garnering in the process widespread popularity among Londoners.
Mashaba shares some striking maverick traits with many mayors around the world. He has adopted a variation of Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again”, by formulating his own “Make Johannesburg Great Again”, with which he peppers his speeches. In the same way in which he was able to connect with the black female consumers of his hair care products in the 1980s and 1990s, Mashaba has proven opportunistically adept at being able to read the political temperature of the day and adapt, chameleon-like. He has been able to identify with the varying interests of the poor, the unemployed, the middle classes, and business people who are yearning for a strong leader who can provide stability in South Africa’s economic hub. His straight talk and sense of determination have endeared him across the political spectrum.
Some activists of the African National Congress have confessed to having been impressed by him. Soon after his resignation, the EFF wrote a glowing tribute to him. Not to be outdone, DA leader Mmusi Maimane extolled Mashaba’s role model virtues. He is perceived as a politician who is alive to the concerns of domestic constituencies. What he lacks in charisma he makes up for with his direct talking style, which lends him the quality of an honest and dependable leader.
Judging by the defiance with which he announced his resignation, it is clear that Mashaba is not about to exit the political arena completely. The DA may have grown too moribund and conventional to contain him. Mashaba is likely to give the DA more trouble outside of the party than he did when he was inside. His growing popularity is unlikely to recede because he has left the DA and the mayorship. There is nothing to suggest that the party had any significant imprint on his political character. If anything, he may have been the phenomenon that shaped the DA’s popularity in Johannesburg.
A practical politician, Mashaba did not concern himself with the endless theoretical debates on liberalism within the DA – he left that to party mandarins in Cape Town – but rolled up his sleeves to tackle crime, drug lords and corruption. He also evinced an inclination to reach out to the poor through, for example, the insourcing of municipal workers.
It is his pro-poor posture, as well as his skilful, if not fortuitous combination of a conservative agenda with populist nationalism, that may yet elevate his political platform in the future. Mashaba is unlikely to exit the political stage. Riding on the political goodwill and capital he has accumulated during his mayoral tenure, he may well re-enter the political arena more invigorated and could potentially change South Africa’s political landscape, for better or worse. DM
Mills Soko and Mzukisi Qobo are Professors of International Business and Strategy at the Wits Business School.
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