Ex-cons can be inspiring

It is horrifying to some that people like Kenny Kunene and I are role models to the youth – after all, we are ex-gangsters and ex-cons – but if you look deeper, the youth are perhaps not quite as undiscerning as we might think.

Seven or eight years ago, when I was released from Grootvlei Maximum, I was determined never to go back to crime.

Profound experiences in prison had made Kenny and I believe that a better South Africa was possible; that the country we had known before jail was not the one waiting for us after seven years in it.

In some ways we were right, in others I could see South Africa still had a long way to go, but instead of being disappointed at the slow pace of change we decided to try to help it along.

At first the gangsters in the township laughed at us for talking to school kids.

We went every day to talk at schools for free, because it was a calling, a compulsion, but to the gangsters we were a big joke, supposedly pathetic fools neutered by prison.

We eventually earned a massive corporate sponsorship from Chubb Security to travel the length and breadth of SA to take the most powerful, hard-hitting message we could muster against crime and hopelessness, against racism and ignorance, and in favour of big dreams and aspirations, using our stories as inspiration.

Today, some of the kids we spoke to are young adults and many tell us these talks were the most memorable of their school careers.

When they see us now, driving our sports cars, they don’t think that we’ve gone back to crime; they realise instead that we haven’t just told them to dream big (which we did do), but we’ve also done it ourselves.

When we told them that we would never let our less-than-admirable backgrounds hold us back in life, they can now see that we never did.

The challenge we made to them with Kenny – that if an ex-con could do it then they could too, and everyone can – is today all the more real.

Kenny eating sushi off models was little more than a party trick, and it doesn’t really factor into much, aside from making him famous overnight.

What matters is whether there’s character and substance behind such superficial displays, and with Kenny there is.

The absence of hope is what lures kids into drugs, crime and an overall lack of long-term ambition. People in townships know that it wasn’t too long ago that I was sitting on the same dusty corners with them, but Kenny and I didn’t want to be there forever, and we didn’t want to get out of poverty through crime.

So when I’m told that the two of us are role models for kids, I’m pleased, because I want to present the view that you can be successful through hard work and good choices, and I want this to come from someone who’s seen it from both sides, who knows that honest success is every bit as sweet as crooked success is bitter bile.
The gangsters aren’t shy to show off, so Kenny and I need to show off far more than the gangsters, because this is how the gangsters advertise and lure kids into their lifestyle.

So we advertise too, because we are the alternative! Africa and South Africa have become very Americanised – our youth can’t relate easily to, for instance, a Mark Shuttleworth, good guy though he is, because so few have gone to private schools and have had the kind of life he had.

Rappers who sing about slums speak directly to our kids, and it’s this sort of cultural space that people like Kenny and I inhabit, speaking to the youth in the direct language they crave, projecting the social image they aspire to.

I certainly don’t want them to be exactly like us and do exactly as we do, and I especially don’t want them to go to prison first – but experience has shown me that we inspire the youth to discover their own strengths and work hard at those.

Make your money however you please, just not through crime – and always dream big. Many of them are our future poets, filmmakers, scientists and architects.

We don’t want them to become us, but we do want them to follow their dreams with the same single-mindedness that we did.

If they can, then they’ll be awesome like us. Kenny and I didn’t come out of jail to fit in, because we knew we never could. So we came to take over.

» McKenzie is a former gangster and prisoner who is now a businessman
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July 2020

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