Kenny Kunene doesn’t apologise to anyone for his lifestyle. He has no regrets, except he never meant to disappoint his grandparents.
To the media and the public, Kenny Kunene is an Agner suit with Blue Label in hand – extravagant and over the top. But he was once just a boy who wanted to make his grandparents proud.
Raised by his mother and grandparents in Kutlwanong township after his parents divorced, businessman Kenny Kunene learned the value of hard work early. His grandmother was a midwife and his grandfather a retired teacher. To their grandson, they were heroes.
“In everything I have done in my life, I never meant to hurt them,” Kunene says, knowing his life is peppered with mistakes as much as it seasoned with success.
Kunene wears his heart on his sleeve and doesn’t mince his words. “I’m successful and I am entitled to celebrate.”
His anecdotes about his childhood tell the story of a boy with big dreams. His friends came from wealthy backgrounds and Kunene wanted in on the good life. He also wanted to wear the labels. But at home things were challenging. He grew up in a two-bedroom house with no electricity, no fridge or television. When it was hot, the fruit would be put in the coolest room in the house, on the floor, so that it wouldn’t spoil – a far cry from the man he is today with his fancy cars, expensive suits and bling accessories.
He ate pap and jam all the time. “Food is food”, his grandfather would say. He was a stern and logical man. “The reason we eat is so that we can have energy,” he would say. “You won’t be able to play if you have no energy and all the children will talk about you. When you go out after you have eaten pap and jam it would be as though you ate meat or chicken – no one will know, just don’t tell them.”
Kenny was a good student. The value of education was drummed into him early on and his peers came for help with homework. His teachers loved him and forgave him his sins when he stepped out of line.
His grandparents could not afford the fancy labels and told their grandson that if he wanted these things he would have to earn his own money. So that’s what he did.
His grandmother loaned him the start-up capital he needed for his small business – selling fruit at school during break. He would leave class five minutes before break to set up his stall. He made enough money to buy himself clothes and groceries for his grandparents. All they asked was that he repay the loan.
When his fruit business closed, he moved on to the taverns at weekends to clean up tables. He started DJing – music was always a passion – and running errands for illegal gold smugglers. They paid well.
Kunene followed in his grandfather’s footsteps and received a teaching qualification. But the money for his studies was not always available and he turned to petty crime. He would gun for the wallets of the “missus”, he explains. “There’s always money in the missus’ purse.” He was a hustler.
Kunene reflects on some of the lower moments in his life. “I stabbed a school teacher on a school trip,” he says. “I grew up fighting, so I carried a knife everywhere I went.” He should have been expelled, but his grandmother begged the school to keep him on. She bled for him, he says.
He reiterates that he never meant to hurt his grandparents – it’s the only tangible tinge of regret he shares. As she aged and became ill, his grandmother asked to see her grandson get married in her lifetime, so he dutifully married the woman who became pregnant with his first child.
The teacher, DJ and criminal put on a big white wedding for his grandmother and, two weeks later, she died. He is satisfied knowing he met her final request.
Family is key to Kunene and he will take on anyone who says otherwise. He talks about his time in prison from 1997 to 2003 openly, with the insight of a man who has had time to mull over it all. He has no regrets and is a better man for the experience, but his first comment about his time in prison is how difficult it was.
Kunene is a father of three, but cares for six children in total. His team of boys and a seven-year-old daughter live in his home in Welkom and he sees them regularly. He has a special relationship with his Grade 12 daughter, who lives with him in Sandton.
“I will not plan my kids’ lives, I can only guide them, but they know the rules,” Kunene says. “My daughter knows that if she falls pregnant, she must pack her things and the man must take care of her. Being a father of daughters is difficult.” It’s a hard line, but he only wants the best for his children.
“My daughter calls me Robert Mugabe,” he laughs. “She says there is no democracy in the house. If you saw the phone my daughter carried, you would not think she is Kenny’s daughter.” The world is not served to his children on a plate. He wants them to learn the lessons he did, to work for things they want in order to truly value what they have.
Kunene has always had a good rapport with youngsters and when he spent time in prison he was asked to offer counselling to the juvenile inmates.
“Prison is the house that made me,” he says. “I have no regrets for going to prison.”
Always the socialite, he threw parties in prison to boost the morale of the inmates.
The Bible presented itself to Kunene in prison. Now a born-again Christian and spiritual man, he is often hauled over the coals for his lavish lifestyle in the face of the poor. To the naysayers he responds thoughtfully: “The Bible says all of us are sinners and those who say they are not are making God a liar.” He doesn’t profess to be righteous and admits to mistakes. But where in the Bible does it say we must be poor, he asks. “I don’t make money to give it away. I make it to enjoy the finest things in life. I never had them, but always wanted them.”
He watched movies and wanted the lifestyle reflected on the screen. “The reason I am driving a Porsche is because of Scar Face,” Kunene says. “I watched it years back on VHS and this man, Al Pacino, who comes from Cuba, tells his friend I am not in America to wash dishes. He becomes a drug dealer. I don’t give a f@%^ what he becomes, but it’s his vision that I understand and I always said one day I would drive a Porsche – it was a dream.”
He hates being called a black diamond. “It’s an insult,” Kunene says. “The reason black people are called black diamonds when they make it in life is because Europeans always perceived us as slaves – destined to be poor – so the one who makes it must be rare, like a black diamond because they made it beyond expectation. You don’t hear about yellow diamonds or pink diamonds.”
Kunene has also been accused of degrading women – a statement at which he scoffs. “I am not degrading to women,” he says. “I love women. Show me that I am raping women or beating them up.”
There is one special lady in his life. But he won’t say who it is. “I don’t like going into very private things, but I will say every woman in my life is special to me.”
He doesn’t like talking about his philanthropic efforts either because that’s what everyone wants him to do – like he’s justifying his lifestyle – which he won’t, but, together with business partner Gayton Mackenzie, Kunene runs business mentorship programmes. He visits schools to talk about the dangers of crime and drugs. He shares his personal experience and story of upward mobility with the pupils who can relate to and are inspired by him.
Highly critical of local media, Kunene has had his fair share of bad press. Now he runs his own website, which he expects will rival newspapers. “Every journalist in this country will check my website for news because it will carry news that no one else will have – and about everyone.”
“Media in South Africa do not have balls. Some people are considered too powerful to write about. Media in this country is so biased. My website will have information about these people. News that will shock this country. I have given the team one mandate: to get the website up and running. I want to see a million views by the end of 2012.”
So who is Kenny Kunene in his words? “I’m a normal guy who stands for the truth. In everyone’s life there is something that can inspire you – we can learn so much from each other. Take what is good from each and every person that you meet – even if it is a hobo or a madman – there is something to learn from everyone and don’t judge.
The luxury cars and whisky existed before Kenny Kunene and will last long after he’s dead, he laughs.
Yes he’s a wealthy man with a dark past and penchant for pleasure, but he’s also just a dad worried about his daughter falling pregnant and a grandson who never meant to disappoint.