Book review – In the Black

2012-05-26 08:43

I was poring over the real estate section of the newspaper, looking for a house to buy in Soshanguve, near Pretoria.

My sight was blurring from the same boring two-bedroom, one-livingroom ads.

I turned to the “employment offered” column and noticed the advertisement for a sales representative for SuperKurl, a company that manufactured black haircare products.

I remembered how pampered I’d felt when I had my hair permed for my wedding and I knew that black hair products were products I could sell.

I hurried to a local cafe where I changed a bank note for some small change; then I dialled the number in the cramped public phone booth.

The company owner’s wife introduced herself as Mrs Thompson, and said to me, “Mr Mashaba, we were actually advertising for a white salesman”. I felt disappointed, but thanked her anyway. Then, after a pause, she continued: “But come and visit our factory anyway, and my husband can interview you.”

Once I arrived at the factory, though, my misgivings were cast aside. The place was a hive of industry, with machines spitting out lotions and potions, threaders sealing bottles and conveyor belts delivering different-coloured bottles to packaging stations.

Colleen Thompson introduced me to her husband, Leon. He took me on a tour of the factory and then invited me into his office for refreshments.

Over a cup of tea, he explained SuperKurl’s areas of operation and I realised that I had at last found products that offered sustainable sales.

But, most importantly for me, SuperKurl was a brand I believed in at a time when salons were mushrooming all over – in villages, townships and cities. No further mention was made of the fact that SuperKurl was looking for a white salesman.

In less than a year I was SuperKurl’s top salesman.

I had the key people necessary to start a business of my own, but the spark I needed to ignite my ambition was funding.

I immediately thought of my friend and associate Joseph Molwantwa’s friend, Walter Dube; he owned a distribution company called African Agencies, which imported black haircare products from Atlanta in the United States.

But a local competitor, a financially strong, white-owned company, had approached Dube’s American principals in the mid-1980s with a view to being the local distributor of their products, and Walter lost his licence to import the products.

As a result, there was a big gap in the industry just waiting to be filled.

Dube accepted R6 000 and granted a loan.

The relief I felt at securing that start-up loan was immense; step by step, I was creating the reality that I had envisaged for myself.

That small boy in Hammanskraal with holes in his shoes would finally get to stand on his own two feet and walk the path he had always dreamed of walking.

Dube was a well-travelled man and an avid reader, and he recalled having read the book Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin.

The book tells the story of a young white American man in the Deep South in the 1950s; he was acutely aware of racial tension at the time, and wondered what it would be like if he were black.

Griffin bought skin-blackening chemicals from a pharmacy, and when his skin darkened he embarked upon a trip around the southern states of America as a black man, experiencing the oppression and racism he had seen black people endure.

“I think Black Like Me would be a great name for our business,” Dube said, and we were unanimous in our decision to adopt the name.

What appealed most to me about the name was that it suggested black pride, a consciousness of what our new company aimed to promote and what it would offer to consumers.

At the time it was still illegal for blacks to own or operate businesses in white areas, so our associate Johan Kriel was tasked with securing premises for us in Ga-Rankuwa – the area where my paternal grandfather had once worked as a security “boy”.

The advantage of having Kriel as our business partner was enormous – he could go places where no black man could; he was the white face that our company needed to establish itself.

While Molwantwa and I visited salons, spreading the word about our new product range Kriel, with assistance from Dube, secured a 200m² factory in Ga-Rankuwa, a low-roofed space in the Small Business Development Corporation business park.

When I visited that small factory for the first time, my mind exploded with the vision of a busy company pumping out products for Molwantwa and I to sell.

It was immensely rewarding to know that after all the years I had been forced to hustle to get by, I would finally be the co-owner of a legitimate business that would allow me to provide for my family as a responsible citizen.

Black Like Me was officially born on Valentine’s Day 1985.

Black Like You
MME Media
237 pages; R195

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