One of Gayton & Kenny’s gang

2014-06-01 15:00

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I am a skinny white guy in his mid-30s climbing down a ladder balanced on a street pole in Elsie’s River. I’ve just hung a poster that screams, in Afrikaans: “We weren’t white enough, now we aren’t black enough! VOTE PA.”

It’s 11pm in the second week of April and elections are less than a month away.

A car containing two tattooed locals pulls up. They look like the opposite of a neighbourhood watch. “Hey my larnie! You all right?”

I offer them a thumbs up.

Tonight, I’m part of a small team in lime green T-shirts working from a rusty old 4-ton truck to put up posters for the Patriotic Alliance (PA), a party that launched at the end of November in Paarl.

We’ve become popularly known as the “gangster party”, though we’ve won an appeal to the Press Ombudsman to make journalists ditch the nickname.

After all, the PA counts professors, pastors, teachers and lawyers among its members, too. And me.

I have another poster in my hand bearing a photo of Gayton McKenzie: former convict, ex-bank robber, ex-member of the 26s gang and now president of PA.

The one-time motivational speaker, author and businessman is telling potential voters that, with the support of coloured people in the Western Cape, he can force the DA into a coalition.

He says it’s time coloured people take charge of their own fates.

To him, gangsterism has a political origin – so only politics can destroy it. The poster in my hand reads: “God changed my life to change the lives of others.”

I ask the pair in the car what they think of our posters, one of which declares that gangsterism must be destroyed.

“Ja, your posters are kwaai!” one exclaims.

The party regularly meets with gangsters, ­particularly during the peace talks Gayton has organised to bring cease-fires to Manenberg, Kraaifontein and Worcester.

Much to my surprise, in all that time, I’ve never met one gangster who doesn’t declare – with what looks like wholehearted sincerity – how much he hates gangsterism.

A gunshot goes off somewhere behind me, just a few houses away. I almost hit the pavement. The chaps in the car have a good giggle.

“Moenie worry nie my larnie! You’re with us. No one will mess with you here.”

They think I’m weird because I’m scared of bullets.

But people are meant to be scared of guns and bullets. In any normal society, they would be – but this is the Cape Flats, from which headlines about gang violence, mayhem and murder flash around the country and sometimes the world.

Gang-related murders increased by 86% in 2013 compared with the previous year here on the Flats and gangsterism is even growing in large black Cape Town townships like Gugulethu and Khayelitsha.

A strange thing has happened in the past few months. Since Gayton got the buy-in of some of the most notorious gang leaders or former bosses – guys like Red (general of the 27s), Ernie “Lastig” Solomons (former general of the 28s) and Watson (former right-hand man to Rashied Staggie of the Hard Livings) – killings in these communities have dropped.

The gangs actually signed peace agreements, which I’m told they consider as binding as any legal document. In Worcester, five gang leaders signed.

I sat in on some of these negotiations, just to observe. While I knew many of the words, which were mostly in Afrikaans, I had no idea what was really being said.

It’s all gangster code – Sabela.

No wonder teachers, cops and ministers can’t make peace. They can’t communicate.

At one point I joked to Gayton that when the PA takes power, the party should make Sabela the 12th official language.

Click here to see a gallery of Charles' pics from the campaign trail.

An unsure start 

Gayton wasn’t sure he should start a political party, since doing so would mean going back to speak to gangsters he’d vowed never to contact again. So I asked: “Do you think you could save at least one life if you do decide to do it?”

“I could save many, many lives.”

A month or two later, when I left my job at City Press to help him out, Gayton told me: “We’ll send you to Parliament, boet!” It was a moment of unbridled enthusiasm. There was one of those from him every hour, on the hour, for the next seven months. They were among the craziest of my life.

I underwent my political baptism in a ­by-election in Vredendal in January.

An old farmhouse we rented ended up so packed with ordinary canvassers and senior ­party members that I considered myself lucky to have a thin mattress I could sleep on in a corner to escape people who snored.

The house’s conservative Afrikaans owner was horrified to see all these coloured people overpopulating her house and sitting on her precious antique furniture.

She was even more horrified to see me, the only white face in the throng, sleeping on the floor.

In the evenings, after a hard day’s slogging from door to door, my new friends then engaged in the impossible task of trying to make me act less white. I still can’t dance, but I did impress them by the end of the month with my new-found ­cussing powers.

At one point Kenny Kunene went into an old coloured woman’s house to sign her up, but she chased him out.

When Gayton went in, she said: “Oh, I thought this was just another k****r party. I didn’t realise it was you, my child. Where do I sign?”

Kenny tells this story as a joke, but he decided to stop helping out in Vredendal after that.

The by-election was a true dogfight. The party signed up almost a thousand members (fewer than 3 000 had voted in the previous election), gave out T-shirts and canvassed tirelessly. Gayton even bused in a whole Cape minstrel crew to ­parade through almost every street in the ward, despite the near 40-degree heat.

On election day, every time a voter entered the hall wearing a green shirt, my heart did a jump. Some of those shirts looked so ragged, dirty and careworn, you’d have sworn just by looking at them that the PA was 20 years old.

We managed a very creditable 23% of the vote. Not bad for a party only one month old.

Money, money, money

I caught a ride back to Joburg with the only other white guy in the party, Simon.

We were so tired, we flew straight off the road at one T-junction while doing 100km/h. But after bashing one loose panel back into place, we pushed on.

Fortunately, the PA’s head of elections, a real Khoisan chief who wore a leopard skin, also happened to be a qualified mechanic. With one or the other party vehicle breaking down or ending up in a minor accident every few days, he ended up being more useful with his spanner than with his pen.

Simon, by the way, was the treasurer-general. Everyone wanted to talk to Simon.

In politics, as in everything else in life, money is paramount.

For all of my attempts to convince them otherwise, most party members continued to believe I knew things about party funding and how they’d be paid, reimbursed or funded for their election projects. Or I just had money and wasn’t sharing it.

But I just kept referring them to Simon or ­Gayton, who, with Kenny, was spending alarming amounts every day. They spent millions. There are things you have to pay for in a campaign that no one could warn you about.

Gayton paid for funerals. He paid people’s school fees. He picked up hospital bills and even paid for someone’s psychiatric treatment. He fixed people’s houses – and painted them lime green. He paid for cricket and soccer teams. He bought mountains of food.

And then there were just the normal costs: posters, offices, T-shirts, computers, membership cards, election deposits, radio ads, newspaper ads, cellphone contracts, rental cars, salaries, accommodation. It wasn’t my money, but I felt the pain.

We tried to save, too. You can make poster glue on a stove using nothing but wheat flour, sugar and boiling water. We bought so much flour one wholesaler asked me if we were trying to bake a record-setting cake.

But at least I wasn’t sleeping on the floor any more. We had a nice place in Table View where I stayed with the party’s national organiser, and an assortment of people who came and went.

Gayton stayed elsewhere with his three bodyguards. Not all the gangs wanted peace in Cape Town. I didn’t meet those gangsters. The thought of them made me a bit paranoid. Any car that approached too slowly, late at night, I viewed as a potential drive-by shooting.

I once took cover in a bush from what turned out to be a family of lost German tourists.

Signs of sign-ups

At least the party seemed to be winning the battle. Membership forms came in every day in packs of thousands. They were stacked in organised heaps of tens of thousands. A team of a dozen young women from the Flats came in to type all the names and details into a database. Each one would complete at least 500 forms a day.

When a councillor in Ravensmead resigned from the DA to join the PA, there was talk his brother-in-law, an MEC, might do the same.

“You’re going to Parliament, Chakes!” G told me, yet again, delighted.

I shook my head. “I don’t know. We don’t know if these new members are registered voters. We don’t know why they signed up. We don’t even know if they actually exist. Someone told me they saw a canvassing team in a graveyard, signing up dead people.”

He scoffed. “You’re just too negative man.”

I was worried there were too many people around who’d heard how rich and generous ­Gayton was. He draws people to him. I just hoped it would translate into votes.

The other big, everyday request was for T-shirts. I tried to tell canvassers: “Win them over with our policies on empowerment, the transfer of the deeds to their council homes, our policies on affirmative action. Give them these ­pamphlets.”

“Okay, but we need more T-shirts.”

After a while I realised that if you have enough T-shirts, you could stage a coup.

But we would never have enough. In the end, the party also didn’t get enough of the vote: 13?000 out of more than 18.6 million.

Gayton was philosophical.

“How could they say we lost? We brought peace. We saved lives. We helped people. We can’t walk away from that.”

So the PA lives on. Kenny, I’m told, will go back to working in business and the party’s national organiser, Anthony Mlata, will take over as ­secretary-general.

Most of the posters I braved bullets to hang on those street poles were gone within a few days. Apparently “rival parties” have a knife on a stick that they use to cut posters down. It’s illegal, of course, but no one is ever caught.

Perhaps it will be harder to dispose of the party itself than to get rid of its posters. But only time will tell.

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