Cartoon images of a camp site
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

From convict to cabinet: South Africa’s new sports minister promotes gangland motorsport

Three young spectators covering their faces from rubber debris and smoke at the spinning pitch, at Wheelz n Smoke arena, on July 7th 2024, Johannesburg, South Africa
Kyle Thosmon for NPR
Three young spectators covering their faces from rubber debris and smoke at the spinning pitch, at Wheelz n Smoke arena, on July 7th 2024, Johannesburg, South Africa

JOHANNESBURG — South Africa’s new minister of sports, arts and culture robbed his first bank at the tender age of 16, but notes that it “wasn’t as glamorous as the movies make it.”

Gayton McKenzie’s career has followed an unusual trajectory from rags to riches, gangs to government, prison to parliament.

A seismic shift in South Africa’s political landscape in May’s election was what ultimately clinched McKenzie a Cabinet position. The African National Congress (ANC) party, which has governed South Africa since Nelson Mandela’s time, lost its parliamentary majority for the first time in 30 years.

Gayton McKenzie at Gallagher Estate on June 1 in Midrand, South Africa. South Africans voted in the country's seventh democratic general elections to elect a new National Assembly as well as the provincial legislature in each of the nine provinces.
Sharon Seretlo / Gallo Images via Getty Images
/
Gallo Images via Getty Images
Gayton McKenzie at Gallagher Estate on June 1 in Midrand, South Africa. South Africans voted in the country's seventh democratic general elections to elect a new National Assembly as well as the provincial legislature in each of the nine provinces.

The ANC was forced to cobble together a coalition government, and McKenzie's Patriotic Alliance (PA) was one of 10 other parties that joined it.

Suddenly McKenzie, the ex-convict, became McKenzie the Cabinet minister — a moment he made light of at his swearing in ceremony this month.

McKenzie, 50, tells NPR how he grew up poor in a neighborhood rife with street gangs under apartheid.

“The area that you’re born in decides … in which gang you become. And it’s still like that in South Africa — the area defines, 'oh you are born on the side of the Americans, the Philadelphia Kids’ or whatever gang,” he says.

Spinners Kayla Oliphant and WheelznSmoke owner Monde Hashe.
Kyle Thomson for NPR /
Spinners Kayla Oliphant and Wheelz N Smoke owner Monde Hashe.

He also claims he joined a gang because he felt that “criminals were the only ones that was free” under the brutal system of racial oppression.

He was in and out of jail through his teens, before being sentenced to 17 years in prison when he was about 20 years old — a fate he actually welcomed, he says.

“Where we grew up, going to jail was a badge of honor, it’s like … going to Harvard or to Princeton,” he says. “Then when I come out of jail, I’ve made my bones.”

In jail McKenzie was a gang leader, but also became a whistleblower. He secretly taped and exposed corruption and abuse taking place at the prison that led to an official investigation.

Elon Rayners handing out Patriotic Alliance shirts at Wheelz n Smoke Arena.
Kyle Thomson for NPR /
Elon Rayners hands out T-shirts for the Patriotic Alliance party, featuring the face of new South African Sports Minister Gayton McKenzie, at Wheelz N Smoke arena.

When he emerged from jail after 10 years, having received early parole, he decided to reinvent himself as a businessman. First, as he tells it, he “became a dollar millionaire” through a seafood distribution business.

He later invested in mining and nightclubs. One of the nightclubs he co-owned with an old friend from jail, Kenny Kunene, who became known as South Africa’s “Sushi King,” after he famously held a birthday party where guests could eat the Japanese delicacy off naked models.

All the while, McKenzie was also a motivational speaker at high schools and wrote a book about his life called The Hustler’s Bible.

Prison to parliament

But he wanted to get into politics.

In 2013 he set up the PA, a party with a right-wing populist bent that claimed to promote the interests of McKenzie’s “colored” community. In South Africa, this is an official, non-derogatory term that refers to people of mixed-race heritage.

The PA advocates for the mass deportation of immigrants from other African countries who entered South Africa without permission. McKenzie blames immigrants for taking South African jobs and services, once saying he wouldn’t hesitate to “turn off” the oxygen of a hospitalized Mozambican or Zimbabwean and give it to a South African.

Zwikhodo 'Ziko', performing a powerslide at Wheelz n Smoke Arena, July 7th 2024, in Johannesburg South Africa
Kyle Thomson for NPR /
Zwikhodo "Ziko" performs a powerslide at Wheelz N Smoke Arena, July 7, in Johannesburg.

His party’s manifesto also calls for a return of the death penalty and conscription.

Since being appointed sports minister on July 3, McKenzie has vowed to clean up graft in his sector, but he is also being investigated over corruption allegations relating to when he was the mayor of a local municipality, from 2022 to 2023. One of the issues being probed by the Western Cape High Court is where funds from a gala dinner fundraiser went.

The PA was only ever a minor political party on South Africa’s political scene, but that changed this year. It got some 2% of the vote in the elections, amounting to nine seats in parliament, making it South Africa’s sixth-largest party. It did particularly well in colored areas, where McKenzie’s message and life story resonated.

Spectators in the grand stands cheering as the spinning show begins, at Wheelz n Smoke arena, on July 7th 2024, Johannesburg, South Africa
Kyle Thomson for NPR /
Spectators in the grand stands cheer as the spinning show begins, at Wheelz N Smoke arena, on July 7, in Johannesburg.

McKenzie’s trademark humor was on full display at his swearing in ceremony by South Africa’s top judge this month. When the judge asked the new minister to be seated, the ex-convict quipped: “The last time a judge asked me to sit, he made me sit for 10 years.”

“I will be the best minister,” McKenzie tells NPR, with his wide gap-toothed smile, and a hint of Donald Trump-like bravado.

Promoting the "petrol heads"

Not everyone agrees with McKenzie’s own assessment of himself. Since President Cyril Ramaphosa named him minister of sports, arts and culture, artistic personalities as well as local media have decried that he doesn’t have any credentials for the role. Given what many South Africans consider as his unsavory politics and background, many don’t think he should be in Cabinet at all.

A prominent political cartoonist, known as Zapiro, depicted the minister as holding a bloodied baseball bat labeled “sport” and a guitar-case containing a gun labeled “culture.”

But McKenzie is nonplussed.

 Spinners Iki Khan and Stacey-lee May.
Kyle Thomson for NPR /
Spinners Iki Khan and Stacey-lee May.

In terms of the arts, he says he wants to make it more accessible and “destigmatize it,” given that where he grew up if you were interested in the arts you got bullied because you weren’t “an alpha male.”

For sports, he wants to start by promoting something he’s passionate about: car spinning. This is a dangerous local motorsport and subculture that grew out of South Africa’s ganglands and involves driving souped-up BMWs in wild circles, often while the passenger — or driver — climbs out the car window to perform hair-raising stunts.

Spinning began in South Africa’s townships under apartheid as a funeral rite for gangsters; a way to honor the fallen. Usually, the cars used were stolen.

These days it’s done both legally at organized events at car tracks, and illegally, on street corners. It can be deadly, cars have veered out of control and killed or injured spectators in the past.

Young boys immitating the mechanics working on the spinning cars at the Wheelz n Smoke Arena, July 7th 2024, in Johannesburg South Africa
Kyle Thomson for NPR /
Young boys imitate the mechanics working on the spinning cars at the Wheelz N Smoke arena, July 7, in Johannesburg.

McKenzie says he wants to regulate it. He claims in gang-ridden areas when there’s a car spinning event that “crime goes down.”

“I’ve done spinning all my life, that’s why I know, when they say ‘petrol heads’ you’re not going to get those kids away from spinning,” he says, using a nickname for car fanatics.

At a spinning event in Johannesburg over the past weekend, drivers and spectators alike were all revved up about the minister’s big plans for their sport.

Sunesh 'Sushi' Pursad, Spinner, performing Stunt on spinning pitch at Wheelz n Smoke Arena, July 7th 2024, Johannesburg, South Africa
Kyle Thomson for NPR /
Sunesh "Sushi" Pursad, Spinner, performing a stunt on the spinning field at Wheelz N Smoke arena, July 7, in Johannesburg.

Tires screeched and smoke rose from the tarmac as a brightly spray-painted car careened wildly around a makeshift course on a dusty patch of land in a low-income area outside Johannesburg.

As it zigged and zagged at breakneck speed, the passenger climbed precariously out the vehicle’s window and onto the roof.

The crowd, sitting around the track — huddled against the winter cold in puffy jackets — went wild.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Kate Bartlett
[Copyright 2024 NPR]