I don't boast, I boost, says Mister Sushi
A month after provoking public fury over his R700 000 birthday party, former gangster Kenny Kunene has ordered a yellow R1.5m Lamborghini.
By Bongani Mdakane, Rowan Philp
A month after provoking public fury over his R700 000 birthday party, former gangster Kenny Kunene has ordered a yellow Lamborghini valued at around R1.5-million and is in the market for a helicopter.
'We have been made by white people - we are not ashamed to say that' He says his party - at which sushi was served on the bodies of half-naked models - was nothing compared with the R800 000 he splurged on another bash in his Free State home town of Odendaalsrus to thank friends and ancestors in August last year.
Then he arrived in a helicopter for the traditional slaughtering of a cow.
This is the man who dares South Africans to find fault with his millions and his partying excesses.
Just four years ago, Kunene says he had less than R10 000 in assets, had to hitchhike to meetings and sometimes slept in business partner Gayton McKenzie's car.
Now he is a part owner of a mining and entertainment empire and has partied with celebrities like musician John Legend and French football coach Arsene Wenger.
He and McKenzie, also an ex-convict, park their cars together so that their personalised numberplates read "X Con" and "So what?"
While Cosatu secretary-general Zwelinzima Vavi has called him a "hyena" who "spits in the face of the poor", Kunene claims he is a "new generation role model" for South Africa's youth.
In an interview with the Sunday Times, Kunene, 40, acknowledged that public speculation and suspicion were rife about how he jumped from poverty to riches in just four years.
He spent 10 years in jail before his 2003 release and then starting his business empire in 2006, he says.
"The reason why everybody is questioning my income is maybe they have limited knowledge of the business world. Or they are lazy - they like salaries and to bask in the sun."
Born in Kutlwanong township and raised by his grandparents and unemployed mother, Kunene now lives in a reported R12-million Sandton apartment, while his wife and son live in Odendaalsrus.
He was jailed in Grootvlei Prison in the Free State for six years for fraud in 1997, having spent four years awaiting trial.
There he risked his life to expose gross corruption and abuse to the Jali Commission.
He said he plotted his rise to riches there while literally on his knees clipping the toenails and calluses of a prison warder.
This week, he revealed more details of his criminal history when he committed sometimes violent crimes as part of a gang while working as a Klerksdorp teacher.
In what he described as "the worst thing I ever did", he said that, enraged that a fellow gang member had heightened their risk of arrest, he shot him in the thigh as they left the scene of an armed robbery.
He admitted that he had tried to sell ivory illegally in Pretoria in 1995 and told of how he had grabbed a tourist around the neck to shield himself from police guns aimed at him before his arrest. That case was later dropped.
"We used to get involved in fraud, car theft, robberies. Now, when we do our talks to kids and schools, we say, 'When we were criminals, we couldn't enjoy our cars, we couldn't drive them in the daylight.'"
Under threat to his life from prisoners and corrupt warders, he said he once carried a teapot spiked with rat poison to a panel of Jali Commission advocates - including Jerome Brauns, SC, who later defended President Jacob Zuma - but warned them not to drink it.
"The 50m I walked with that kettle was the longest of my life - and the decision I made to warn Advocate Brauns was the best of my life."
For his success, Kunene credits McKenzie, the ANC's empowerment policies "beyond tenders", "foreign investors" and the teaching and support of two "mentors", mine boss and philanthropist Greg James and telecommunications tycoon Gavin Varejes.
He said McKenzie found him counselling troubled pupils at Calculus Secondary School in Bloemfontein, at a salary of R3000 a month, in 2006 and proposed they join forces to sell McKenzie's book, The Choice, to schools.
"We went everywhere. Sometimes we'd sleep in the car when we could not (afford) a hotel.''
He said that James, inspired by the book's anti-crime message, bought 80000 copies of two versions of the book in June 2007 to give to Western Cape schools, thus providing him and McKenzie with the cash to start "a small mine consultancy business".
The pair were later appointed senior managers at Central Rand Gold (CRG) - where James was CEO - in charge of dealing with the Soweto community affected by the proposed mining.
He said he had since become co-owner of "about three, four businesses", including a new mining venture "elsewhere in Africa", which he said could grow to be worth R700-million.
"Our mentors, Greg and Gavin, have taught us to diversify. We have been made by white people - we are not ashamed to say that - because they celebrate when you turn your life around."
He gave a long list of his charities, from a burial fund for "our heroes" in the MK Veterans' Association to university bursaries for 12 Soweto students, whom he set up in "brand-new flats".
At his five-star club, ZAR, in Sandton, the Sunday Times found Kunene, dressed in one of his Aigner designer suits, being debriefed by staff he had sent to Durban to find a site for a ZAR franchise. He flaunted his history by holding a giant champagne bottle behind gold-painted "prison bars".
Said Kunene: "I landed in a helicopter in my area to motivate young people - some of you will say I am boasting. I am not boasting, I am boosting."
How I earned my bucks
•In jail, Kenny Kunene says, he earned R22 a month making tea for the warders at Grootvlei Prison, and other cash and goods working for Gayton McKenzie "in the smuggling business";
•On his release in 2003, he declined numerous invitations to take part in robberies and scams, despite having only R3000 in his bank account;
•In 2004, he earned a small wage as the agent for a man selling refurbished desks and stationery to schools in the Free State;
•Later that year, he used his old contacts to arrange discounts on equipment for a partner starting a nightclub in Odendaalsrus, and earned a stake in the business;
•In September 2005, he got a teaching job at Calculus Secondary School in Bloemfontein, teaching life orientation and English, for which he earned R3000 a month. He bought an old VW Golf, but had to put it on blocks;
•In 2006, with less than R10 000 in assets, he struck a deal with Gayton McKenzie to form X Concepts Publishing and to promote and sell McKenzie's prison biography. They also began a fish company with four trucks and a refrigerated warehouse, and later sold it "for profit";
•Kunene became rich in 2007 selling tickets for McKenzie's motivational talks to companies for "big money" and also advised people on "holes" in their home security for a fee. A portion of the money they made from the book sales was invested in a "mine consultancy business". Benefactor Greg James's company, CRG, hired Kunene on a large contractor's salary. He does not deny that he received share options allegedly worth hundreds of thousands of rands;
•In February 2008, he was appointed a senior manager of community relations at CRG. He bought a multimillion-rand Sandton apartment and a Porsche 911, using a numberplate that read "What now?" as a taunt to prisoners who said he could not afford the car without resorting to crime;
•Applying business lessons he says they had learnt from mentors, James and Gavin Varejes, Kunene and McKenzie attracted foreign investors and became part owners of "about three, four companies"; and
•In February 2010, the pair began mining operations in Zimbabwe. Kunene says they are in the process of securing R140-million in start-up funding from foreign investors for a R700-million mining project "in another African country" and plan further ZAR clubs in Durban and Mozambique.
In his first legal drama since prison, Kunene this week rushed to resign his position as director of at least five private companies - having learnt it was illegal from newspaper revelations for convicted fraudsters to be directors of companies.
Kunene said he discovered his "honest mistake" after newspaper revelations two weeks ago revealed that Tony Yengeni, the former ANC chief whip and fraudster, had contravened the section by becoming the director of six companies.
No person with a compulsory prison term for an offence "involving dishonesty" may be a director of a company, according to the SA Companies Act.
Kunene told the Sunday Times: "I didn't know that was the rule - when I read this thing about Yengeni, I started resigning all my directorships."
Among the companies he is resigning from include African Australian Minerals and Energy Ltd, Dirbyn Investment Holdings and Dirbyn Publications - saying he would lodge the papers yesterday.