Kenny Kunene believes that he still has an important role to play in politics, writes Janet Smith. But first, there’s Thursday night…
Johannesburg - When Kenny Kunene was growing up in Kutlwanong township in Odendaalsrus, a 100-year-old gold mining dorp in the Free State, he was the loud guy in tight purple pants organising the beauty pageants.
“I have always been this person who I am now,” he says, with a smile as wide as the area he calls home.
“I was the one getting the dancing going, selling all sorts of stuff at the tavern. Through primary and high. At the same time, we were also busy, politically, on the ground. That was very consistent with who I am.”
He laughs, but there’s a tiredness in the timbre. He wipes his hand over his forehead and adjusts his bright green Patriotic Alliance (PA) cap against a white blaze at midday. He’s been lobbying non-stop for the party.
“But I haven’t had the benefit of the exposure of media not looking only at one side, because that other side of me is what has helped to sell newspapers. If only the serious part of me could also be there, I would be able to legitimise KK, and when people found out, they would say, wow! You’re everything different to what we think.”
We’re talking a week before Kunene, secretary-general of the PA, gets laid out butterfly chicken-style on the stage at The Lyric for Africa’s second Comedy Central Roast. Or not. KK has no intention of being as badly braaiied on Thursday night as the roasters occupying the maenianum secundum – the seats reserved for plebs in the gladiatorial arena.
Among those with their gauntlets up will be Somizi Mhlongo, Khanyi Mbau, Dineo Ranaka, Jack Parow and John Vlismas. But Kunene says he’s got the ramrod to battle them and roaster, British comic Jimmy Carr. After all, he’s been a high school English and history teacher who could hold down the class clowns.
It’s a day for big shades when we meet on the roof garden at The Star, but Kunene hasn’t worn much flash. He’s slipped a PA T-shirt over an ordinary one. He’s in blue jeans, although the dazzling red loafers might betray a taste for his past.
“Before this idea of the roast came along, I had watched other roasts… Donald Trump, Charlie Sheen… you name them. Pamela Anderson’s was the worst of all time. She was abused. So I had said to myself, I’ll never do this thing.
“But comedians had always made jokes about me and were making money out of that which was supposed to be given to me, and when this idea came around, I was getting involved in a project which I wanted to do in Alex. So my involvement in the roast is also going to help me to help that campaign, and that’s made it easier to overlook the negatives.
“It involves a woman by the name of Ingrid Moloi, who is assisting 352 child- and granny-headed households where there are victims of HIV-Aids. These people are struggling so much. I want to help them.
“I found out about it through a young man I met whose parents run Stoep 15 in Alex every Monday, where they sell traditional food and play house music. It’s always packed. Then I visited Ingrid’s place and met this woman with an incredible story.
“So there’s this other side, where we can prove that a roast is not just about mocking.
“And let’s not forget that if you’re going to be roasted, that means anyone who sits on that chair has had a life which impacts. You’re bringing people into the audience to celebrate a life, so I am honoured. I want mine to be the biggest, in recognition of how big a person KK is.”
The tycoon’s tale took its most interesting turn yet in late November when he and fellow ex-convict Gayton McKenzie – who were part of a group of inmates who blew the whistle on shocking abuse inside Grootvlei Prison in 2002 – registered the PA at the Independent Electoral Commission. It had been three months since Kunene had resigned from the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) where he was its head of campaigns, mobilisation, and special projects for just a month.
Kunene and the EFF didn’t reveal what led to their split, but their pasts remained intertwined. Although Kunene downplays a personal relationship with Julius Malema, their links were made before Malema was expelled from the ANC in 2012.
A common enemy seemed to be Jacob Zuma, with Kunene releasing a scathing open letter to the president in the middle of last year. In it, he described his disappointment, if not disgust, with Zuma, calling him a “monster and a tyrant”.
With Luthuli House right behind him where we are sitting doing the interview among the rooftops of Sauer Street, Kunene seems to be less angry now, although he emphasises that the ANC has little if no political will to redeem its history. At the same time, he says he will not be “joining the chorus on Nkandla”.
“The public protector’s office has shown us how they deal with reports in the past. For example, the DA’s advertising contract… after the provisional report was revealed, (DA leader Helen) Zille was exonerated. We’ve laid other complaints to the public protector about the treatment of the poor in the Western Cape, and nothing has been done.
“What is not in dispute on Nkandla is that amount which was spent being excessive. There’s corruption and maladministration, and price inflation. But we don’t see the forensic support for criminal charges. If the president is guilty, he must be punished, but let’s not forget how much it cost to upgrade Nelson Mandela’s two houses in 1994 and 1995. That was very excessive also, but because he was the darling, nothing was tackled.
“Like the public protector today, it’s a selective dealing with issues.”
Kunene is calm, but what he reveals off the record is engrossing. He insists that the one thing you will always get from him is the truth. He talks about how he and McKenzie – who was jailed for armed bank robbery and he for fraud – fell out last year over an idea to enter the porn movie-making world.
But that’s all over. They’re back together, brothers, now in the political game but with a surprising twist. Although McKenzie is the president of the PA, and Kunene the secretary-general, he says neither will be going to Parliament if their party makes an impact at the polls.
“We won’t be drawing a salary. That’s already long decided. We’ve got other very capable, experienced people who are going to be doing that. At the same time, the president and I are funding this campaign out of our own pockets, and we’re funding it in such a way that we are going to get to the finishing line, but some newspaper editors have found it difficult to cover fairly what we are doing.
“That’s because they’re funded by white monopology capital.
“But that’s not going to discourage us. We’re working hard on the ground.
“We’re not going to benefit out of government tenders. We’re planning two centres of power. So all those people who think this about us, me and Gayton, enriching ourselves, are wrong. We have already made our investment in the Patriotic Alliance, and we’ve written it off. So we’re well aware of how much it is costing us.”
If there was a common enemy with Malema in Zuma, Kunene says a common enemy for many of their supporters now, is the DA. A predominant goal is to unsettle, if not unseat, the party in the Western Cape. His overwhelming position is that it’s not true to its image: It neglects the poor, it’s funded by secret Western trade and political interests, and it’s got an agenda which is at least as spurious as that of the ANC.
“But there’s no anger in the PA. We’ve not formed it on the basis of anger. We’ve formed it on the basis of correcting social ills.
“So we’ve got our focal issues, like industrialisation in the Northern Cape, the injustices in the fishing industry, trying to deal with the burden of the influx of people into Joburg, how to properly fund a public health system, building young people’s skills and so on. But it’s our decision to also focus on gang violence in the DA’s area, in the Western Cape, which has got a lot of attention, and for obvious reasons.
“The violence is a trade there. It’s killing people. It’s stopping children from going to school, and so we believed we were doing the right thing when we approached (former leader of the Hard Livings gang) Rashied Staggie in prison, in the interests of trying to find a way forward.
“That happened before we started our party. We wanted to see how we could facilitate long-lasting peace, and we all know Staggie is influential there. But the DA went on publicly to say, if he is released, this is what will happen: more violence.
“They were upset that we might be able to do something there. Remember that every election, the DA and the ANC are visiting the ganglords too, to get support. But they go at night. We went during the day.
“Anyway, it didn’t work out. Staggie resigned. He was victimised because of being in the PA, and he’s no longer a member. But we’re still there, determined to make a difference.”
Kunene says he’ll use Thursday’s roast as a platform.
“To be honest with you, prison has made me understand the spiritual life, and also how the spirit links to the flesh – a subject most people do not want to dwell on as it is too complicated. But it’s about what God has destined you to do. My favourite Bible verse is Romans 8:28 in which it is stated that everything happens for the good of those who love God.
“If you look at the Bible, you’ll see Moses had to become a murderer in order to find his destiny when he ran away. Paul had to persecute Christ in order to be able to find his destiny.
“Criticism builds me, and there have been so many insults. I wouldn’t say the people making these statements are stupid, but sometimes they are feeble-minded, they have small minds, they’re prejudicial.
“At the same time, some insults are genuine. They’re my educators.
“If you want to avoid criticism, you must say nothing, do nothing, be nothing. I refuse to say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.”
Kenny Kunene studied to be a teacher at Vista University.
He later turned to crime, running an illegal ponzi scheme, and was jailed at the notorious Grootvlei Prison in Free State from 1997 to 2003.
He and fellow convict Gayton McKenzie took on a different image when they became whistle-blowers after they videotaped abuse by officials behind bars.
The pair became motivational speakers and businessmen after they left prison, later becoming notorious for their flashy lifestyles, earned as a result of their association with mining companies. The Hawks later investigated the pair around their association with Central Rand Gold, but no charges were laid.
Kunene backed the ANC until last year, when he joined the EFF before resigning from the party in August. In November, he became the secretary-general of the Patriotic Alliance.
Stand-up comedian John Vlismas.
Comedienne Tumi Morake.
Zef rapper Jack Parow.
Jacaranda FM presenter Rian van Heerden.
Musician PJ Powers.
Radio personality Dineo Ranaka.
Choreographer Somizi Mhlongo.
Socialite Khanyi Mbau.