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From SA Gangster To Minister: Gayton McKenzie’s Remarkable Rise

GAYTON McKenzie, a former gangster and bank robber turned nightclub owner and opposition politician, has been appointed as South Africa’s minister of sports, arts, and culture. President Cyril Ramaphosa announced McKenzie’s appointment on Sunday, as part of a multi-party government formed after the African National Congress (ANC) lost its parliamentary majority in the May 29 election.

McKenzie, leader of the Patriotic Alliance (PA), has had a tumultuous and transformative journey. Celebrating his new role, the 50-year-old posted a photo of himself putting on football boots, humorously noting, ‘Thank you for all the well-wishing messages, I will reply shortly. I’m just busy getting ready, I have work to do ⚽️.’


McKenzie’s story is one of resilience and redemption. He committed his first bank robbery before the age of 16 and became a full-fledged gangster, spending seven years in prison. Upon his release, he vowed to change his life. ‘I might have had 12 rand in my pocket but I had billion rand in my mind,’ he said in a 2013 interview with public broadcaster SABC.

After his release, McKenzie turned his life around by becoming a highly sought-after motivational speaker, sharing his experiences and insights on overcoming adversity. He authored several books, including A Hustler’s Bible, and ventured into various businesses with his prison soulmate, Kenny Kunene. The duo made headlines with their ventures, including the infamous Zar Lounge nightclub in Johannesburg, known for its controversial sushi parties where sushi was served on the bodies of women clad only in underwear.

Despite the nightclub’s eventual closure amid legal disputes, McKenzie continued to diversify his business interests, ranging from mining in Zimbabwe to various entrepreneurial endeavours in South Africa. These ventures laid the foundation for his foray into politics.

McKenzie’s political career began in earnest in 2013 when he co-founded the Patriotic Alliance with Kunene as his deputy. The party, known for its slogan ‘Ons baiza nie’ (We are not scared), gained significant traction among South Africa’s coloured community, securing 2 percent of the national vote and 8 percent in the Western Cape provincial elections.

‘People want to see someone from their background who isn’t shy to say, “This is who I am.” You see it with figures like President Zuma and President Trump,’ said political analyst Kagiso Pooe, explaining McKenzie’s appeal.

McKenzie’s hardline stance on undocumented migrants, encapsulated in his slogan ‘Mabahambe’ (They must leave), resonated with many voters but also drew accusations of xenophobia. In a dramatic publicity stunt, he visited the border with Zimbabwe to confront migrants attempting to enter South Africa. Critics pointed out his hypocrisy, noting his previous comments about the importance of immigrants to South Africa’s economy.

Initially, McKenzie expressed interest in the home affairs and police ministries, arguing that his past as a gangster equipped him to tackle South Africa’s high crime rates. ‘None of them [other politicians] are equipped to deal with the mafias and murder rates we are seeing. South Africa needs me,’ he was quoted as saying.

Although he did not secure these positions, McKenzie embraced his role in the sports ministry. ‘Sport can change children’s lives. A child in sport is a child out of court,’ he said, promising to elevate car spinning as a major sport in South Africa. Car spinning, a motorsport involving vehicles being driven in circles and drivers performing stunts, has a controversial reputation, but McKenzie aims to legitimise it and provide a safe environment for enthusiasts.

However, his appointment comes with significant political risks. McKenzie is currently under investigation for allegedly failing to account for funds raised at a 2022 gala dinner during his tenure as mayor of Central Karoo. Just weeks before his cabinet promotion, a court ordered him to declare certain financial records to investigators.

Despite the ongoing investigation, McKenzie remains defiant. ‘The truth shall come out. I have nothing to hide,’ he stated, dismissing the allegations as lies with ‘short legs.’

McKenzie’s rise to a cabinet position underscores a narrative of dramatic transformation and controversy. His journey from a life of crime to a significant political role is a testament to his resilience and ability to reinvent himself. However, it also highlights the complexities and contradictions that come with his unconventional path.

As McKenzie embarks on his new role, he aims to leverage his unique experiences to bring about change in South Africa’s sports, arts, and culture sectors. His story serves as a reminder of the power of redemption, the impact of leadership, and the challenges of navigating a career marked by both admiration and scepticism.

In the end, McKenzie’s appointment is a bold move by President Ramaphosa, reflecting the dynamic and often unpredictable nature of South African politics. Only time will tell whether McKenzie’s tenure as minister will be marked by success or further controversy, but his journey will undoubtedly remain a compelling chapter in the country’s political history.

(with the BBC)

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