McKenzie and Kunene’s minds remain jailed

2011-02-12 14:18

I remember the first time I encountered Gayton McKenzie. It was on the grounds of Grootvlei prison outside Bloemfontein in the winter of 2002.

He was wearing the green prison issue uniform and a brown jersey. He was in leg irons surrounded by warders leading him into the hall where Judge Thabani Jali was chairing a commission set up to investigate corruption and other irregularities in South African jails.

Even under those conditions, McKenzie was regal. He stood head and shoulders above his jailors in all senses of the phrase.

Around his neck was a thick gold necklace. He spoke with authority that his captors seemed to respect even when they had reduced him to short steps. He wore cologne that I remain certain was expensive.

A few minutes later McKenzie was telling the commission about how he with cellmates (Moosa Mia, Petrus Sekutoane and Samuel Grobelaar) and with the help of the head of prison Tatolo Setlai, had set up a video camera in their cell that captured prison warders involved in criminality.

It was because of this video that the Jali Commission asked then President Thabo Mbeki to change the commission’s terms of reference to include Grootvlei prison, which was not in the original list of prisons to be visited as part of the probe into corruption and wrongdoing in jails.

I met Kenny Kunene, or Majozi as his friends and fellow prisoners called him, around the same time.

A smart and assured man who at all times wanted it to be clear that he was no “domkop”.

He had told me he had been a teacher before the lure of easy money pulled him into crime and before long he got himself into a pyramid scheme which eventually got him accommodation at Grootvlei prison where he met and befriended McKenzie.

Once out of prison, Majozi sponsored tournaments for schools in his native Odendaalsrus.

I know this because he invited me to send a reporter from the paper I used to work for.

I never did, not because I did not believe him but because in short-staffed newsrooms, especially one based in Johannesburg, Odendaalsrus tends to be forgettable.

This background is important to say why I join those who criticise Kunene and why I think McKenzie’s article in City Press (Ex-cons can be inspiring; February 6) disappointingly misses the point and does McKenzie and Kunene’s professed cause more harm than good.

In justifying his friend’s lifestyle, McKenzie seems to think that only outlandish behaviour by ex-cons can send a message to youngsters that South Africa is alive with possibilities.

It is an absurd and dangerous proposition.

One does not need to be crass to inspire.

If they did, the likes of Kaizer Motaung, Richard Maponya, TW Kambule or a certain Nelson Mandela would be nonentities.

McKenzie ought to know from personal experience of the long-term dangers of surrendering to the charms of someone who dangles money before you but offers nothing else of real value.

Why then must McKenzie sell to our children the idea that he himself says in his autobiography led him to a life of crime?

I wish McKenzie and Kunene would send a message to the youth that heroism comes with making a stand for good in a fight against bad even if it is to their personal risk, as they did when they exposed prison rot. It does not matter who else recognises this.

If there is a set of people who can send a message to the youth that your life’s circumstances or your bank balance should not dictate what is right or wrong, it is these two because they proved it in the belly of the beast that is prison wearing drab prison garb.

Kunene did not need to eat sushi as “a party trick” or wear a garish looking jacket to become a hero to the youth or to those who believe in law and order. He was a hero because he chose to side with right against an institutional wrong.

As a media practitioner who had an opportunity to highlight the great role the two men were playing outside jail, I take some blame.

I bought into the false notion that journalism is an inherently cynical enterprise.

Perhaps the media is guilty of not celebrating and recognising heroes enough, causing such men and women to go to desperate measures to record their presence among us.

If despite his being the most recognised name of the 516 witnesses who gave evidence before the commission in its two-year stint McKenzie feels he has to pull off a stunt to get attention, then he will never really understand what a South African hero he is.

He will never leave the prison that is now in his mind.

Unfortunately he will take our youth to that prison with him with his simplistic message that the opposite of poverty is opulence and nothing in-between.

And only being filthy rich guarantees social acceptance.

The danger of this logic is that it ignores that huge wealth gap in South Africa.

It slavishly perpetuates the fallacy that the rich are rich because they work hard and the poor are that way because they don’t.

They are oblivious to how the substandard education opportunities that black, working class children in particular get mean that if they indeed believe that opulence is the only way to be accepted but do not have the education nor the trust funds saved for them to live such lives, then crime does become a realistic option.

McKenzie and Kunene can stop trying too hard.

They have already served their country, the prison population and the youth by what they did when they didn’t have a dime to their name.

They have ably demonstrated that not even being physically chained could stop the human spirit’s desire to do good.

If they insist that only the high life gives them the credibility to inspire the youth, then their minds and hearts remain jailed.

And that is a great pity.

» Moya is editor of The Witness 

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