Politics is a nasty business and it can bring out the worst in people, a risk to which the good and well-intentioned but politically uninitiated are perhaps most vulnerable. 

The leadership transition around the DA may in time be read as one of the more dramatic and important political developments in the history of South Africa – possibly on a par with the events almost 60 years ago when Helen Suzman’s liberals walked out of the United Party.

But within this past week’s transition lurks a little mystery that in time may be resolved and which relates to the events around the former Mayor of Johannesburg, Mr Herman Mashaba.

Consider these quotes, delivered roughly six months apart, by Mr Mashaba:

March 2019 – ‘In all the years I have known Helen Zille, including about her beautiful life, anyone calling her racist is actually racist himself/herself. Helen is one of those I personally hold in the highest esteem. I am proud of her as my fellow SA.’

October 2019 – ‘If the DA is going to be taken over by right-wing elements, I am out of there’ and ‘The election of Helen Zille represents a victory for people in the DA who stand diametrically opposed to my belief, and value system, and I believe to those of most South Africans of all backgrounds’

It is a very odd thing to think that in such a very short period of time, one’s view of a person and an organisation can change so dramatically. It becomes even odder when you consider that the former quote would appear to align very closely with the positions held by the man over the previous years, while the latter statements are quite at odds with those views.

For a great many years, Mr Mashaba served as an influential force in the Free Market Foundation (FMF). The Foundation is a libertarian South African think tank that has throughout its history advocated in favour of free markets and against state encroachment into the economy, and race-based policies. Being libertarian in outlook, the Foundation is further to the right on the ideological spectrum than the IRR, which is a classically liberal think tank – and therefore more moderate in many of its positions. For many decades, we have enjoyed an excellent relationship with our ‘right wing’ cousins at the Foundation, before, after, and during the period when Mr Mashaba served as its chairman.  

Mr Mashaba enjoyed a reputation as a heroic figure for the boldness of his opinions and his success in business in the face of the worst excesses of the apartheid government. I know that he was a role model to many young liberal and libertarian thinkers – and especially the growing crop of young black liberal and libertarian thinkers. 

The man we knew is best reflected in this extract from an address he made to Solidarity (a trade union) in 2015. I will be so bold as to say that the sense conveyed in that address was typical of Mr Mashaba and I set out the extract at length to demonstrate that what follows was not an ill-considered tweet or fleeting comment off the cuff, but rather the man’s considered opinion. 

‘…The BEE or Black Economic Empowerment Act of 2003 (now referred to as the Narrow Based Black Economic Empowerment law) refers specifically to the government policy whereby sections of the population who were not allowed to participate in the economy were given a chance to redress the economic imbalances of the past. BBBEE or Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment Act of 2006 seeks to accelerate and increase the penetration of black participation in the economy at every level. BEE or BBBEE, essentially what it comes down to is affirmative action.

Essentially, affirmative action sought to “substantially and equitably transfer and confer the ownership, management and control of South Africa’s financial and economic resources to the majority of its citizens. It also sought to encourage and ensure broader and meaningful participation by black people to achieve sustainable development and prosperity”. The notion of empowering previously disadvantaged blacks is a noble ideal, noble but racist. Let’s look at why this is so.

To adhere to BEE principles, businesses are compelled to consider the race and social background of potential applicants instead of considering an applicant’s skillset and qualifications. Race is thus a determining factor in securing employment in South Africa. It was unacceptable to have job reservation during apartheid and it is unacceptable now. Affirmative action is not empowering, it is limiting, degrading, and offensive to anyone who wants to participate in the economy but cannot simply because they are not black.

Affirmative action is discriminatory not only against a minority, it also excludes the vast majority of black South Africans from its purported benefits, since BEE has succeeded in creating an economic network of privileged manipulators and cronies.

Additionally, affirmative action has created a skills shortage crisis as many qualified and economically active whites, and sometimes blacks, left the country because of being excluded. Affirmative action serves a few politically connected black elite; it has seen the rise of extensive corruption, but has still left millions of black people, in particular the youths, unemployed and in dire poverty.

Affirmative action creates an illusion of job creation and racial integration that doesn’t exist. Instead, affirmative action has divided South African society in two, highlighting the divide between the white haves and the black have-nots.

Affirmative action has enhanced the racist perceptions of blacks and whites. Poor blacks are under the illusion that the whites are still the only beneficiaries of business. Whites feel that the tables have turned, and that they are excluded from economic activity based on race.

The cost of affirmative action to the poor has been substantial in that it has diverted money from education and infrastructure projects that would have been beneficial, and instead created bloated agencies and departments that don’t contribute to the economy in any meaningful way.

Affirmative action supports racism’s bedfellow, namely tribalism, where favoured politically connected businessmen are able to benefit from government tenders and contracts. It promotes and creates an impression that to succeed, you must be first politically connected”.

The sense conveyed through those comments are pretty much par for the course IRR or FMF commentary; redress is important and should be a policy priority, but the manner in which the ANC and the government goes about it is incompetent and racist, and it would be better to base such policies on actual socio-economic disadvantage.

Having read so much of what Herman Mashaba has written and said over many years and having spoken at length to people who I think knew him well, I find it hard to believe that his comments of recent weeks represent a genuine reversal of opinion where he now finds himself at odds with the views of the Foundation he led.

Perhaps such a reversal has occurred and, if he insists it has, then there is no point in arguing. But running the City of Johannesburg is a thankless and incredibly tough task – especially in a low-growth national economy and without the ability to make or influence policy. Simply resigning would have raised questions about why? Was there something wrong? Was the city in trouble?

It appears from what we are told that the relationship between Mr Mashaba and his councillors was a tense one, further worsened by trying to keep the EFF dalliance intact.

Some journalists have cast aspersions on the city and its leadership and alleged malfeasance, especially around the EFF.

All the while the DA was getting itself into greater and greater trouble, haemorrhaging support, crippled by racial bickering, the heady days of the 2016 local election triumphs very far behind them.

Where was there for Mr Mashaba to turn? The national government was itself crippled and useless, rudderless and indecisive. But to all outward appearances he soldiered on. When he appeared in Parliament this week to bemoan the poor quality of service delivered by the Home Affairs ministry, he was rounded on and ridiculed as a ‘cry baby’ (we have long taken exception to his position on immigrants but the manner in which he was treated by Parliamentarians was a disgrace). 

I would say that running the City well under those circumstances was an impossible task – it simply could not be done. No woman or man could do it. Maybe Mr Mashaba came to know that. A useless and corrupt person might stick it out with barely a hint of discomfort, as so many ANC officials have demonstrated. But for a capable and decent person it would be quite impossible.  

Amidst the pressures and conflicts, suddenly exacerbated by the charged racial atmosphere around the DA leadership shifts, knowing the impossibility of it all, perhaps it made sense to jump – and perhaps it is in justification of such a jump that a narrative was presented around right-wing takeovers, anti-poor policy, and the ‘racism’ of Helen Zille – knowing that the media seldom questions such claims.

Politics is a nasty and dirty business – a cruel and monstrous thing – and it can bring out the worst in people, a risk to which the good and well-intentioned but politically uninitiated are perhaps most vulnerable. 

Frans Cronje is CEO of the Institute of Race Relations.

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Frans Cronje
Frans Cronje was educated at St John’s College in Houghton and holds a PHD in scenario planning. He has been at the IRR for 15 years and established its Centre for Risk Analysis as a scenario focused research unit servicing the strategic intelligence needs of corporate and government clients. It uses deep-dive data analysis and first hand political and policy information to advise groups with interests in South Africa on the likely long term economic, social, and political evolution of the country. He has advised several hundred South African corporations, foreign investors, and policy shapers. He is the author of two books on South Africa’s future and scenarios from those books have been presented to an estimated 30 000 people. He writes a weekly column for Rapport and teaches scenario based strategy at the business school of the University of the Free State.


  1. I agree Frans. I suspect the mammoth task of trying to reverse the decline of Johannesburg was simply too much and Helen Zille’s DA resurrection gave Herman a reason to get the hell out. A reason he knew would be embraced with enthusiasm by this country’s somewhat hysterical left leaning media.

  2. The biggest problem about Herman Mashaba, a self-made hairless man selling hair products is that there are not more businesspeople like him, who made their millions through sheer hard graft. However, the skills required to succeed in business are not the same as those required to be a statesman (ask Trump or Ramaphosa).

    He was put in an impossible position: fixing the disaster the ANC left behind (R180 billion in infrastructure backlog alone, failing water, electricity and road and a billing crisis of note) and reliant upon the cynical and racist VBS-raider party. A politically more astute politician would have declined, and many in the DA felt that the multiparty administration was a trap and should have been allowed to collapse.

    Being the feisty chap he is, Herman marched on, but increasingly dancing to the EFF tune, to the point where he abandoned his own mandate to further the EFF’s; naturally this led to criticism from his DA “colleagues” to the point where he was facing a mutiny just before he jumped. Never kind to criticism, he was particularly stung when his own caucus and party structures tried to hold him accountable. As its former top three just learned, autocracy does not go down well in the DA.

    It is ironic that a millionaire should be claiming to be pro-poor when many of this millionaire’s actions were anti-poor, particularly his photo-op raids which also hit small traders trying to eke out a living on free market principles. Conversely, his management skills as CoJ CEO were poorly matched to the position aggravating his resentment of criticism, even constructive.

    To crown it all, he forced an unnecessary by-election and caused its loss. Unforgivable in politics.

    He departs the DA and the mayoralty the same way he ran it, autocratic, undignified, ungrateful, disloyal and racist.


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