Sitting in the barber chair with Gordhan, Asmal and De Klerk

2017-02-24 08:10
Shamiela Diedericks has met a lot of interesting politicians over the years at her barber shop opposite Parliament. (Jenna Etheridge, News24)

Shamiela Diedericks has met a lot of interesting politicians over the years at her barber shop opposite Parliament. (Jenna Etheridge, News24)

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Cape Town - When politicians sit in Shamiela Diedericks’s barber chair, they have a chance to forget about the drama in Parliament just metres away.

The powerful men hardly notice the sharp blade whipping them into shape as she chats away or gives them the space to just zone out.

“You know, people say when I am stressed I come for a haircut because it is relaxing. I first said to someone, ‘Is it me that is boring? Do I put you to sleep?’” she chuckles.

Sandwiched between a restaurant and takeaway outlets in a side street, the Top-Men barber shop is hardly noticeable, except for a framed picture of scientist Albert Einstein with unruly hair.

It is largely through word-of-mouth that politicians, policemen and members of the public end up in her care.

That’s how the likes of Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan walked through her doors for a trim, she recalls, shortly before he presented his budget speech to the nation one year.

One wall is lined with photos of her posing with Gordhan and the other famous men she has helped over the years.

The shop has been open since the 1960s. Its originally peach-coloured walls have no doubt enclosed some very interesting conversations and secrets.

“This was a shop where all the ministers of the National Party used to come,” she whispers with wide eyes.

Long curtains in the windows apparently used to block curious pedestrians from looking inside.

From Bo-Kaap, Shamiela used to walk past the shop as a girl, not even realising it was a barber. Her only view of its interior was the top edges of a cabinet protruding above the curtains.

She first rented a seat in the shop in 2006. Two years later, she took over the business and its customers after the owner emigrated.

The curtains were ushered out and she got her husband to cut the cabinets in half, to open up the space.  She painted the walls in shades of brown.

“I wanted to make it look more masculine,” she says, pointing around the room.

“I thought peach walls in a barber shop don’t make sense. My idea of a barber shop is that the client sitting here in front must be part of the conversation.”

(Jenna Etheridge, News24)

Late for a meeting

Shamiela, 55, wastes no time with her clients. A regular walks in and she hangs his jacket up on a pedestal. There is no one else in the store and she ushers him to a seat at the back.

Music plays gently in the background while traffic and pedestrians whir past outside.

She puts her spectacles on and gets to work. Fifteen minutes later, she is done. She dusts talcum powder on his neck and wipes off excess hair with a towel before he leaves.

Despite her efficiency, she remembers getting into “trouble” for attending to former SA Revenue Service commissioner Oupa Magashula, “an amazing guy”.

Former SARS spokesperson Adrian Lackay kept saying he wanted to bring his boss for a head shave.

One Saturday afternoon, the two arrived and Lackay left him there before a budget speech-related meeting.

“He enjoyed his shave. He said he never knew a shave could be such a lovely experience,” she says, smiling. “He asked if I minded shaving his face too.”

Time flew and he ended up being late for the meeting because everyone was waiting for him.

She says Lackay came back to her later and said she had gotten him into trouble.

He apparently said: “They all came down on me, asking ‘Why you haven’t told us about this place?’”

Good laugh

A year or two ago, UDM leader Bantu Holomisa walked in “like he knew where he was going”. She didn’t want to ask how he ended up there and instead got straight down to business.

“You have to let them relax and let their minds wander. You don’t want to talk about politics when you go out.”

A wicked sense of humour emerged when he had a slight wardrobe malfunction.

“His hem had come out and he was looking for a needle and thread. My colleague taped his pants.”

With tongue firmly in cheek, she recalled him saying “Pity. I was hoping to take my pants off in front of you”.

“We had a good old laugh!”

Over time she has come to pick up whether clients want a conversation or would rather relax in peace. 

Sitting easily on the front couch, leaning in, she says she has learnt how to read their body language.

FW de Klerk

From 2008, she was entrusted with the silvery whisps of hair on the back of former president FW de Klerk’s head.

There was not much hair to speak of in 1990 already, when a photo was taken of him with Nelson Mandela, the day he was released from prison.

Nonetheless, she was his barber until 2015.

“People would stand outside the shop and look in, waiting for him to come out and shake his hand. And you know what? He was so down to earth. He would greet people. So, so nice. He was always very decent”.

He even came into town one day especially to say goodbye to her.

(Jenna Etheridge, News24)

Kader Asmal

But sometimes the chair is not the spot for jovial chitter-chatter, like when the late politician Kader Asmal used to sit in it.

“A spitfire that one!” she whistles. “What an interesting man. We often argued in my chair about things, often little things.”

Their conversations were about family, religion, and politics.

“He had his opinions and I had mine. It is as simple as that. He respected that.”

He never had any airs or graces.

In 2008, Asmal resigned from Parliament, reportedly in protest against the ANC's disbanding of the Scorpions anti-crime unit.

The same day, she recalls, he came to tell her he was going to be a lecturer and they would not see each other anymore. He would be going to a barber closer to his home.

“I said oh, that is a pity. I am sorry to see you go. We need good men, we need good politicians. He said he is tired of it all.”

About a year later, she was busy with a client when the doorbell rang and a somewhat sheepish Asmal walked in. He asked if he could return as a client.

“He said, ‘I am not happy with the way they cut my hair. Can I come back to you?’” she laughs, shaking her head at the memory.

She says it was sad seeing him deteriorate.

“He was sharp until the end.”

When he came in to the shop, two weeks before he died of a heart attack in 2011, she was taken aback by how frail he looked. He had started growing a beard because he did not have the energy to shave anymore, she thinks.

His wife Louise, “a lovely woman”, brought him in.

“Because he was so weak, I think she did a lot more for him than he would have liked. And to still ask her to shave, I think he just felt he would have been a burden.

“He said to me he had decided to cut the beard and I said that is a very good idea. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that the beard made him look sick and old.”

She shaved it off and was happy to see the man she knew again.

(Jenna Etheridge, News24)

Last week, Deputy Finance Minister Mcebisi Jonas apparently came for a visit.

“He just came in for his beard, his goatee. He is so sweet, a honey. That man, I have a lot of respect for him.”

Shamiela buzzes around the shop with a lot of energy, her body not giving away that she works six days a week.

She keeps a sense of humour about recently discovering she is allergic to hair.

Some of her clients visited with a "walking stick, then a wheelchair, and then never again" so she is mindful of attracting younger clients.

“That is one reason why I colour my hair,” she says, stroking her long, dark locks.

“If I stand here with grey hair, the young people won’t come in. They will say I don’t want my hair cut by an old lady!”

Read more on:    cape town  |  good news  |  parliament 2017

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