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Herman Mashaba – Identities in Flux


Steven Boykey Sidley is a Professor at JBS, University of Johannesburg, and the co-author of Beyond Bitcoin: Decentralised Finance and the End of Banks (with Simon Dingle).

Perhaps Herman Mashaba is the real thing. He is self-made without the sully of tender-fiddling. He is motivated by matters other than money. He has a slightly inarticulate fervour, and sounds more like a distressed and favoured uncle than a politician. And he is terrified at what will become of this country under what has become of the ANC. The terror is contagious.

There is a moment in Herman Mashaba’s off-the-cuff lecture, stump and plea to a gaggle of mainly affluent white men (over breakfast in a tony restaurant in a leafy Johannesburg suburb) in which he describes the “human rights violations” evident in Johannesburg’s townships. People with no electricity, no address, no job, no security, no money, no hope. No identity.

He pauses dramatically and repeats this – these people have no identity – it has been stolen from them by the ANC. And he goes on to sharply and convincingly draw his conclusion – they have no identity, they have no hope and they will come to your neighbourhoods and breach your walls. They are the lynchpin of the breakdown of law and order in this country. Their political leaders are criminals, and that is where they will be led, and this is not political posturing. It is imminent.

There is palpable discomfort in the room. Here a man whose barefooted and near-parentless youth has given way to capitalist success, whose apartheid-era township hardscrabble qualifies his comments more than most. And he is convincingly spouting the sort of rhetoric that white people usually only whisper in the hermetic privacy of their dining rooms.

I am here to find out about the man who may become our next mayor, with polls skating on a knife-edge of possibility for him and the DA. What I come away with is removed from the usual cynicism that poisons these events for me.

Mashaba paints his picture – his disadvantaged childhood, his desperate mother unable to afford 25 cents for school fees, his decision to fear no man, his growing political outrage giving way to his proud ANC vote in 1995. His de rigueur adulation of Mandela. His breast swelled by Mbeki’s dream of an African Renaissance. All stock standard stuff, similar in tone and texture to many black politicians across the political spectrum.

But then – a moment in time, he recalls. Mugabe’s excesses and outrages against his citizenry are ignored by the pointed silence of the ANC. And Mashaba thinks, what is this? This cannot be. Politics over principle. This is not what I signed up for. And his sense of betrayal grows, leading inevitably to joining the DA in 2012 amid howls of outrage from shocked colleagues and friends.

This is a good story. Did it really play out this way? Perhaps. Did the identity of Herman Mashaba go through a metamorphosis extreme enough to walk away from sacred truths and embedded loyalties? Perhaps. Does he spell the means and mechanisms of change? The budgets, the project plans, the funding, the policies, the structures of governance? He does not, and to this crowd, at least, it hardly matters.

What he does is stand up and say – we are at a tipping point. Be assured of this. Time has run out. Get out of your comfort zones. Help. Evangelise. Volunteer. Donate. To do anything else is to fracture the reliability of your children’s trust in you.

I generally don’t believe much of what politicians say in public. But there is something unpolished here, something that is not distorted by the blinding glare of spin.

And so I find that not only can I see him, but I believe him. DM


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