He was top dog until he witnessed a child being abused - and decided to help, writes Suthentira Govender Nov 13, 2005 12:00 AM By unknown
CHANGED MAN: One-time gang boss Gayton McKenzie who filmed acts of corruption in grootvlei Prison after his crisis of conscience. Pic: Richard Shorey. 4/11/05. � SUNDAY TIMES.
'I was South Africa's worst nightmare. I didn't give a damn. I was young, I was black and I didn't give a f***' Jacob Zuma
WHEN Gayton McKenzie stared into the helpless eyes of a 14-year-old victim of a violent rape in Grootvlei Prison, the fearless, power-hungry gangster in him died forever.
For seven years McKenzie had witnessed violent crimes committed inside the walls of the Bloemfontein prison. But helping the bleeding youngster who had been raped by 18 inmates spelt a Damascene conversion for McKenzie.
"At that very moment," says McKenzie, "I became sick of crime, sick of all the rapes and robberies. I wanted to change my life."
A couple of weeks later he convinced three other inmates to help him film the routine rapes and other illicit activities in the prison.
The secret video they released blew the lid on what was later to become the most sensational proof of corruption among prison gangs, warders and inmates.
McKenzie was released from prison after serving seven years of a 15-year sentence for armed robbery shortly after the release of his sensational video. Today he is possibly the most sought-after motivational speaker in the country, his diary filled for the whole year with engagements at schools and companies.
Perhaps it's the roughness he still shows at the edges and his ability to talk from the heart that grabs attention as he tells his life story.
"I'm an in-your-face guy and that's what gets through to the kids," he says.
McKenzie's motivational talks are sponsored by Chubb Electronic Security - the very people he had to duck during his days as a bank robber and gangster.
Chubb's managing director, Stephen Mundy, describes McKenzie as an orator who tells his story with no holds barred.
"For kids it is much more powerful to hear it from somebody who has been there and came out the other side," says Mundy.
"He is doing a noble thing using his life story to prevent others from falling into the same traps he did."
McKenzie's 31-year life story sounds like a Hollywood script. It is difficult to reconcile it with his middle-class upbringing in Heidedal, a small coloured township in Bloemfontein. He claims his parents were strict and that he excelled at school.
But his attention was soon caught by flashy gangsters who ran the township.
The impressionable youngster joined the Americans - starting off as a messenger and graduating to a career that was to lead him to the top of the prison gangs at Grootvlei.
While his friends were making a meagre R10 a week working at the local café, McKenzie was raking in R150 a week with the Americans. Soon he became a full-blown gangster, earning his stripes by staging his first bank robbery at the age of 16.
He started living the high life, buying fancy cars and booking into five-star hotels. When he ran short of money he simply robbed a bank.
He is frank about how big heists and robberies are committed.
"Let me tell you something ... There is no big crime in South Africa that takes place without insiders being involved," he says.
McKenzie is hardly ashamed of his notoriety. "I was South Africa's worst nightmare. I didn't give a damn. I was young, I was black and I didn't give a f***," he says.
McKenzie's crime spree came to an end in 1996 when an accomplice ratted on him to the police. He was sentenced to 15 years in Grootvlei Prison. But prison was like getting his postgraduate degree and confirming his colours as a gangster.
He made his presence felt the very first day he walked into Grootvlei.
"The first thing I did when I walked into prison was find out who was the most powerful prisoner. I walked up to him and hit him. I kicked him in the face."
McKenzie was put into solitary confinement. "When I got out of solitary confinement, everybody was scared of me. I had made my point."
He immediately joined the 26 gang in prison, becoming the most powerful and feared prisoner. This gave him the chance to make even more money by selling drugs and anything that could be sold in prison.
"If food was being sold I would get a share from the sales. We ran the prison like a business," he said.
McKenzie led a life of ease in prison, making money on the side and often manipulating warders to get what he wanted.
But his road to Damascus is clearly imprinted in his mind: the prison's 28 gang crammed on the boy like vultures, beating and raping him.
"He cried, he screamed, he begged, then he started to pray. They raped that child continuously for nine hours. I have never seen so much blood in my life."
But still McKenzie was unmoved - until the next day when he was on his way to the bathroom.
"Have you ever looked into the eyes of a young boy who has been raped by 18 men? It was never my intention ... I never wanted to help this boy."
It was part of gang culture not to interfere with another gang, but something about the boy made McKenzie break the rules. He knew it could lead to his own death, yet for the first time in 27 years, the hardened McKenzie contemplated doing something moral.
"I picked the boy up at great risk to my own life and took him to the warders. As I walked with this helpless child in my hands I thought to myself: 'This must stop.'"
The warders refused to help, treating the rape as a joke.
"I tried to lobby influential people on the outside, but nobody wanted to believe me about what was going on in this prison."
It was then that McKenzie decided he was going to make a secret video to expose illicit activities at the prison.
His best friend, who had robbed banks with him, begged him not to carry out his plan. But McKenzie was determined and roped in a few other prisoners.
"It was very easy to smuggle video cameras in. My mother hid the cameras in the coffee and Cremora," says McKenzie.
"I sent a warder to pick up my groceries. Little did he know he was bringing in the cameras."
McKenzie and his accomplices knew the risk of making the video. If the warders detected the cameras "it meant death on the spot".
They hid the cameras in tea boxes at strategic spots to capture the corruption.
"We hardly slept at night; we edited most of the night. We all fought like crazy, but we worked for a common cause of exposing these warders for what they really were."
They sent the footage to the Office of the President and the Jali Commission of Inquiry, which was investigating corruption at prisons.
"The commission sent advocate Nicolette Joubert to interview us. I later married that woman. I usually get very angry when people say the government is doing nothing for the people - hey, they sent me a wife," McKenzie quipped.
He spent a hellish year in prison before being released under President Thabo Mbeki's presidential remission as he had already served seven years of his sentence.
"I had the opportunity to convert to correctional supervision. But then I thought about my fellow prisoners who helped me make the video. I could not leave them behind so I decided to stick it out."
It was the hardest year of McKenzie's life. "The corrupt warders wanted to kill me and two prison gangs had ordered death sentences on me. That was the price I had to pay for making that video."
When he was released from prison in 2003, McKenzie's romanticised view of the outside quickly faded away. Rejection by society made him feel like going back to prison; nobody wanted to take a chance on a hardened ex-convict.
That was until a language school teacher, Ria de Villiers, spotted McKenzie's talent as a motivational speaker.
"She sent me to her good friend Pieter-Dirk Uys, better known as Evita. He asked me to make a speech.
"He told me I was a natural and asked me to start speaking at schools in Cape Town. That is how I got started."
Since then, McKenzie has dedicated himself to fighting against crime and corruption.
One of his appearances was seen by Chubb representatives, who saw the value of his work and decided to sponsor his talks.
"I am like a rock star when I go to schools. The kids really look up to me," he says.
"I'm not your normal speaker. I tell the children I've been there and this is what you have to face if you turn to a life of crime.
"I don't beat around the bush. I've grown so much ... I just tell my story. But I also tell people that you can change no matter what your situation."
McKenzie is putting the final touches to his autobiography, The Choice, due for release early next year.
It has been ghost-written by a South African author living in London. "It's a tell-all tale of Gayton McKenzie, the gangster, the prisoner and now the reformed man with a message," McKenzie says.
He is also involved in discussions with Britain's Channel 4, which is keen to buy the rights to his life story