Ain’t no gangster party, says the PA

PHAKAMISA MAYABA / When PA leader Gayton McKenzie was just 16, his way of asking for a bit of pocket money was to press the barrel of an AK-47 to the temple of an unsuspecting security guard. He has now put away the illegal firearms and reinvented himself as a businessman, and — most recently — crusading politician. Still, it is his former incarnation that the world continues to talk most about.

This is how many remember him – as a stocky menace who wrought mayhem through elaborate bank robberies in a criminal career that eventually landed him inside Grootvlei maximum security prison, labouring under a staggering sentence, and in the company of hardened sorts who hardly flinched at cops or manacles. Admittedly, he was a thug of the unrepentant variety, who, among other things, survived a stabbing behind bars before traversing the country to give talks aimed at discouraging youngsters from slipping into the abyss.

McKenzie’s brother in arms, Kenny Kunene.

Alongside former prison inmate Kenny Kunene – whom he credits for saving his life in said stabbing – McKenzie is famous as a witty cardsharp, shrewd businessman, and – as EFF leader Julius Malema can attest – someone who doesn’t hesitate to pen forthright missives to people which many others might shrink from sending. His open letter ‘Thug to Thug’, addressed to none other than Juju, drips with frankness, tons of sarcasm, and leaves the reader thinking, “Damn! Did this guy really just write this about the Commander-In-Chief? (Or Thief, in McKenzie’s phraseology.)

With his criminal days behind him, and the Special Assignment exposes of prison corruption (in which he played a starring role) yesterday’s headlines, it seemed the nation could finally close the chapter on Gayton McKenzie. Leave him to the pastimes of the rich — playing golf, partying at high-end clubs, being snapped alongside the nouveau riche – and forget about the skollie from Heidedal. For a while, that’s what the nation did.

Then came the blindside move that left analysts floored. In April 2022, McKenzie was voted in as the new mayor of the Central Karoo District Municipality, encompassing Laingsburg, Prins Albert and Beaufort West – a constituency as parched and dishevelled in physical terms as the the high levels of unemployment and general despondency that plague many of its people. Moving from plush offices in Sandton to a town beset with glaring problems of inequality and poverty, he faced an unenviable task.

But this came with a built-in advantage. While routinely hammering away at national talking points, notably illegal foreign nationals, McKenzie’s political party, the Patriotic Alliance (PA), is also seen as a refuge for coloured people, who tend to lament that they weren’t white enough during apartheid, but aren’t black enough post 1994. However, McKenzie insists that his organisation’s doors are open to everyone.

When the National Party (NP) – father of legalised segregation – pulled off a dumbfounding victory in the Western Cape in the nation’s maiden democratic polls, sentiments of coloured voters supposedly being bedfellows of their erstwhile oppressors came to the fore. However, the ANC’s subsequent efforts to gain favour with those voters (and win back the only province it doesn’t control) have evidently fallen flat. Instead, most of them have since been swallowed up by the Democratic Alliance (DA), the Good Party, and several smaller entities.

As a people who have consistently stressed their marginalisation, and are often ravaged by various social ills, it was inevitable that coloured people would seek a party run by people with the same background. McKenzie appears to fit that brief. Instead of being a smooth-talking Ivy League graduate or career politician, here is a man whom even battle-scarred gangsters on the Cape Flats coul see as a ‘bra van die Kasi’. From criminal to business mogul, and now an unrelenting politician who triumphantly stands before the eNCA’s cameras at the Beit Bridge border crossing to prevent foreign nationals from illegally entering the country.

His accent is unapologetically Afrikaans. He is a big-hearted philanthropist who delivers food parcels to the needy, and is even known to speak in Sabela – the cryptic prison patois used by the numbers gangs – when communicating with his associate, Kenny Kunene. Who else could woo the notorious – now deceased – Hard Livings gang boss Rashied Staggie in the course of advocating for peace in the ganglands of Cape Town?

Kunene is just as colourful. Known as the Sushi King, for once having nibbled a California Roll off of the body of a naked model, he is a favourite subject of the tabloid media. Although he had a short stint with the EFF, his claim to fame comes from lavish parties, fancy cars, expensive clothes, and ‘The Army’ – a bevy of long-limbed women in Peruvian weaves, all said to be his live-in girlfriends. He was also the co-owner of the popular ZAR Lounge, and almost wrecked then Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa’s ascent to power when a salacious video featuring one of the latter’s alleged mistresses appeared on his website.

Nowadays, he seems to have dusted off the drama – at least in public — and is often spotted in reflector jackets and workman boots as he supposedly tackles the issues affecting the Johannesburg Metro. He’s even toned down on the cocksure language of opulence, and framed himself as a noble person who seeks nothing but to deliver the people from the ruling ANC.

This then is an incongruous duo pursuing public office. Ex-cons. Flashy consumers in the world’s most unequal society. But let it not be said that either lacks charisma or appeal, particularly with those who’ve grown wary of the intolerably moribund current political rhetoric. Add to this the bizarre twist that their supposed vices may be regarded as virtues in some quarters. They have paid their dues, goes one defence, while those who should long have shared a cell with the 26s saunter scot-free in the halls of power.

PA supporters at a rally in the Orlando Stadium on 25 November 2023. Picture: PA Facebook page.

It’s been over a year since Chief Justice Raymond Zondo released the last of his reports into state capture, which implicated no less than 1 438 people and entities in that orgy of looting — clearly aimed at hollowing out the state and granting the ANC and its cronies rewards beyond imagination. Yet, to date, despite many promises and pledges by said Ramaphosa, nobody has gone to jail. Nearly R1 billion later, those reports are gathering dust, state-owned enterprises are on their knees, and citizens are still reeling.

Even the Ramaphoria elixir the nation took big swigs from as he assumed the presidency, promising a ‘New Dawn’, has, years later, only left the nation quite literally in the dark. 2024 had barely begun when South Africans were told to brace themselves for yet another salvo of rolling blackouts. The massive job creation programme that was meant to gather momentum from 2018 onwards sputtered feebly, in fits and starts. And the nation learnt that the squeaky-clean billionaire president seemed to have a – gangster-style –habit of stashing wads of foreign currency in his furniture. Although he has since been cleared of any wrongdoing by the public protector, the court of public opinion remains dubious.

So when suspicions are directed at McKenzie and Kunene, this opens a whole new can of worms. On 17 September 2017, the Sunday Times reported that the duo, described as ‘friends’ of then president Jacob Zuma, had been earmarked as BEE partners in a lucrative R5 billion gas deal with a Russian oil company. The article suggested that on a trip to Russia they had been accompanied by then State Security Minister David Mahlobo, and that they had Zuma’s ear. This article appeared just three months before the ANC’s 54th elective conference, and around the time of the leaked video and an alleged attempt on Kunene’s life.

It is against this backdrop that McKenzie’s staunch support for fracking in the Central Karoo has been met with misgivings, muddied by the caricature of what politicians have seemingly come to represent: economic opportunists waiting in the wings to capitalise on whatever political mileage they might make. You know, the age-old memes about access to resources and the politics of the stomach.

But one can’t count out the PA out just yet. Unlike run-of-the mill political hacks, McKenzie understands the power of the emotive and is not constrained by party bosses, because he himself is the boss of what he calls a ‘benevolent dictatorship’. And he has clearly learnt a thing or two about selling oneself: the media are your friends, and social media are their cousins. Every small victory, every success story, every seemingly negligible gesture of kindness, from stopping to talk to an elderly woman, or having a sit-down with an ex-con – or more recently, handing out bikes to kids in the Karoo, only for a news report to emerge that the gesture was a PR stunt – he makes sure the cameras are there to capture the moment, and for social media to disseminate the glad tidings. The PA Facebook page is awash with images of the poor receiving food parcels and McKenzie’s foot soldiers embarking on cleaning campaigns, mending potholes or neglected facilities.

Last month he was on the Podcast and Chill network, a controversial platform that most politicians – apart from the discarded or disgruntled – would rather steer clear of. Not McKenzie. If you had the stomach to sit through the two-hour-long interview, you’ll know that with more than one million subscribers, it believes it’s the biggest podcast in Africa, and McKenzie’s appearance no doubt had some of those people enamoured by his accessible manner.

He was professorial, pulled no punches, had his hosts breaking into raucous laughter, and even dropped a few S and F-bombs – just a seemingly normal person having a casual conversation tinged with moments of charm, emotion and a few disclosures that had viewers pressing the rewind button.

McKenzie with the controversial businessman Rob Hersov. Image: Facebook

Painting himself as a rich man who isn’t dependent on politics, he took big swipes at big business, particularly so-called white monopoly capital. According to McKenzie, it’s because of the greedy and crooked disposition of these entities that the late Nelson Mandela is now widely labelled a sell-out. With the general elections looming, he says, big business is hard at work, pooling billions of rands to not only unseat the ANC, but to ensure that the DA goes unchallenged in the Western Cape, and to ultimately facilitate the Cape Exit.

To this end, he claims, some R2 billion has already been made available to various new parties on condition that they support the aforementioned ends. He even claims his billionaire friend Rob Hersov – famous for once telling the ANC to ‘voetsek’ – approached him with a R200 million funding offer on condition that the PA adhere to these requirements. McKenzie says he turned down the offer.

As things stand, all of this is not just political wishful thinking — the party holds around 80 seats in various municipalities. McKenzie places PA membership at some 400 000. Taking stock of McKenzie’s and Kunene’s chequered pasts, one would easily write off its prospects. Sadly, the prevailing status quo – in which accountability is sacrificed at the altar ofexpediency — means that to the extent that this due may harbour any ulterior motives, they would just be dancing to a common tune.

FEATURED IMAGE: Gayton McKenzie helps to hand out bicycles to children in Borcherds, George, at a Christmas Party on 25 December. Angered parents said later after the photographs had been taken, the bicycles were taken away again after the photographs had been taken. According to PA officials, this was because they were meant for a bicycle park in the area, and they didn’t want the children to start riding the bikes without helmets. Picture: PA Facebook page.

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