South Africa

TRAINSPOTTER: Fringe Festival — how Gayton McKenzie spells the onset of the coalition era

By Richard Poplak 27 July 2016

“I actually pray every night for a white rhino to die,” says former gangster and newly minted political boss Gayton McKenzie. “Why am I saying this? Because when the last white rhino is dead, maybe people will start caring about the coloured man in this country, who is truly going extinct.” McKenzie is now a (very) minor political boss. His Patriotic Alliance (PA) party may have only garnered 13,500 votes in the 2014 national campaign, and he may be running in only two municipalities (Johannesburg and Nelson Mandela Bay), but the former bank robber believes that the PA is the future. Fringe parties with specific constituencies – in this case, coloured folk in Cape Town and Johannesburg – will become kingmakers. Welcome to the beginning of the Israel-style Coalition Era, Mzansi. By RICHARD POPLAK.

Behold Johannesburg North’s Rivonia on Deck, one of the more successful restaurants in southern Africa, and the lair of bank robber turned South Africa’s version of The Donald, Gayton McKenzie. At the weekend, according the The Gayton, the restaurant’s parking lot resembles a sports car dealership during an ANC tender announcement: diamond-encrusted stiletto heels, lip jobs, boob jobs, Lambos, Hennessey, desperation. But on a desultory Tuesday morning in winter, it looks like a faded fishing compound overlooking an apocalyptic sea, from which heavily armed mariners pull mutant coelacanths and hirsute mega tuna.

The offices of the Patriotic Alliance, The Gayton’s small but potentially giant-killing political folly, are located on the crumbling second floor. The premises are soon to be renovated, but right now they give off a Burkina Faso opposition party vibe. And then there is McKenzie himself, an enormous man wearing a suit so soft it looks sewn from the inner ears of baby bunnies, a pair of Louis Vuitton footwear, and a million-rand watch. He flashes an even more expensive smile – gap-toothed, sly, ironic. He’s a charmer, The Gayton, both less orange and less asshole-y than the American version, even if their business models appear identical.

“I can’t sit here and tell you that I’m a revolutionary,” he says, dangling Porsche keys from a finger.

Yeah, no shit. But still, the man is fantastically welcoming, ushering me into an Atlantic City-style boardroom in which an ultraviolet light would reveal bacterial universes of iniquity. Indeed, who can deny that The Gayton has done well and lived large? He’s robbed banks, worked as a security guard, shipped smoked snoek from Cape Town to Johannesburg, worked mining deals, opened nightclubs, opened restaurants, and become arguably the most successful writer and publisher in the history of South African letters. (His Hustler’s Bible has sold, he claims, close to 200,000 copies; a sequel is pending.)

In his current guise, Gayton the Showman has become Gayton the Statesman, and he’s fighting for a cause that is undeniably worthwhile: he’s here to save poor coloured people from a country that doesn’t do poor.

“How can they keep saying that Cape Town is the best city in the world?” he asks me. “How can the murder capital be called the best city in the world? You had 10 coloured people die this week in Port Elizabeth. In Cape Town this week alone, you had more than 12 coloured people killed. We are the extinct species. I’m not giving you the stats of children. I’m not giving you the stats of innocent bystanders. Nobody – not the Democratic Alliance, not the African National Congress – pays attention to it. And I realised it’s a political problem.”

Okay, so how to fix it?

“The salvation of this country lies in the hands of coloured people,” he tells me, “because we come from both sides. We are white, we are black, we come from the first people, the Khoisan. And we are playing a long game – we play for [national elections] in 2019. Let’s say the ANC gets 49% and we get 1.5%. Well then! We’ll make sure that the land gets returned to the Khoisan, who have been humiliated in the land of their forefathers.”

Maybe. Maybe not. But the truth is that The Gayton is on to something. There are many constituencies in the country that are totally ignored by the Big Three. As the ANC begins to self-immolate towards the 50% margin, something weird starts to happen: entities like The Tattooed Hassidic Lesbian Rabbis of Orania start to take on outsized political heft.

The Gayton knows what the analysts are only now starting to glom on to: soon, the Fringe shall rule, and the outsiders shall rise as kings.

* * *

It’s been a long, long election campaign, so perhaps I can be forgiven for thinking that Sheila Okwuosa, PA National Executive Committee member and Gauteng Women’s League president, is conducting a rough, free-association breast exam on a fellow alliance member. It takes a second or two to dawn on me that this is not an impromptu medical moment, but that the fellow member’s T-shirt and its prominent PA logo are the principle items of concern. 

“Green represents the land,” says Okwuosa, poking roughly at a left breast, “red is for blood shed of the Khoisan; gold is for the minerals; black for blacks, whites for whites; brown for the brown nation – the coloureds – and the blue is for the sea and the exploited fisherman. The Patriotic Alliance, it’s more like a movement, it’s more for the people on the ground to have a voice.”

We are sitting in a backroom office in deepest Eldorado Park, Soweto, a brick structure appended to a brick house across from a brick medical centre. The house is easy to spot, largely because of the street vendor installed in front of it, bearing a sign that says, “Be Blessed and Stay Blessed.”

The party’s president certainly knows a thing or two about blessing, but we’ll leave that aside for the moment. I’m in Eldos, Ward 18, to spend some time with a woman named Demona Martin, who several weeks ago tore up Radio 702’s Xolani Gwala live-in-Eldos show. Martin, a formidable woman wearing ninja black boots, black tights, a black sweater, a black doek, accessorised by a forest green scarf, promised Gwala that she and the PA were going to walk into Eldo’s copious drug dens and start kicking ass.

“Vigilantism?” squeaked Gwala, alarmed.

Of a sort, retorted Martin, terrifyingly.

And so what unfolds is a loud political coffee klatch, without the coffee. The party’s core team of seven is hosting me and, as it happens, they have all had a long history dealing with the fallout from Eldo’s crippling drug problem. Martin, for instance, was born into an ANC family, most of whom, including herself, were forced into exile. The family has since splintered: PAC vs. ANC, DA vs. PA, Marvel vs. DC, etc. But Martin is from the ‘hood and lives in it like a whirlwind: she was part of the formation of Eldorado Park Civic, and from that stemmed Eldorado Park Anti-Drug Association. She worked for four years in after care, but the problem, she says, is less the drugs than it is the fact that there’s nothing but drugs in the country’s maligned, forgotten coloured communities.

“I’m an interventionist,” she tells me, “and I have a different approach. Out of 10 children, six are on drugs. My approach is to skill our youth. We have a halfway house, we send them into rehab centres, but when they come out, there’s nothing for them. The approach here is love. If we love our people enough, there will be a chance. We have a tendency here to look down on each other. We don’t speak in unison.”

The whole shindig was kicked off in 2013 here in Eldos, and the people sitting around me were the precise constituency: coloureds who know they’re getting badly screwed by a system deliberately and systematically screwing them.

Fine. But what’s the methodology?

The needs of the community range from the pathetically prosaic to the inexpressibly horrific.

“On Monday we will fix 55 windows,” says Okwuosa. “Our vision for after the election is that out children become entrepreneurs – and they find what they’re good at. We will open small community banks to give the youth funds. We want to change the mindset of the children, this mindset of living on handouts. We want to make sure our children are businessmen. We will give them the resources. Talking about promising people big houses? No. We focus on the future of our children. There’s a void. Their only role models are drug dealers.”

Saving girl children from the lolly lounges is one of the party’s main tasks. “These girls come out of the houses mentally very unstable,” says Martin. “Physically weak. Some have been gang-raped. Some have been used and abused by the lolly lounge owners, and passed along the line.”

Jacob Zuma has swanned into Eldos twice, both times to campaign. But nothing has changed, because change would mean a fundamental, well, change in outlook.

“I hate to put it to you this way, but the ANC did this to this community,” says Martin. “And the DA. It’s a DA stronghold. They sold us a dream. What happened to the dream? It’s turned into a nightmare. For the first 22 years nothing has been here.”

And before democracy?

“Ahh!” exclaims Martin. “During apartheid, Eldos was a very dignified place. We could move around at night without getting killed. We could come home and be proud of our little home we had. Eldos was Eldos – this is why I’m so passionate about giving Eldos our dignity back.”

And that’s the rub, right? Eldos was better.

And now it’s payback time, ne?

* * *

“I’m the first one to admit that the apartheid regime treated coloured people better than the black people,” The Gayton tells me, in his dim Scorsese boardroom. “But some of us shunted that privilege. We were united in 1985 – we were throwing stones, you had the Langa massacre. I myself led my school in solidarity with the fact that our black brothers didn’t have textbooks.”

But wasn’t there a big group hug at the dawn of democracy? Is the ANC really out to get the coloured community, or is life not equally hard for all of the country’s maligned communities?

“There’s this big lie that goes around in this country – the biggest lie is the reconciliation lie,” sniggers Gayton. “It’s absolute bullshit. You hear the racism between black guys and coloured guys – it’s not just a white problem, being racist. Mandela did the only thing he had to do – bring white guys to the table. The rest was up to us. You call him a sell-out? He spent 27 years in jail and never bent. I’ve seen guys fold in two weeks! And you call him a sell-out?”

Okay, but…

“No, listen. Many people look at me starting the PA, and they laugh. But our thing is, we know the ANC is going to get under 50% in some metros, and we are for coalition politics. Our number one demand is that coloured people must be treated the same way as black people in this country. It should be legislated. We got 13,500 votes in the last election. Watch, we’ll get 10 times amount in this election.”

It certainly helps that The Gayton has offered campaign money to councillors in Nelson Mandela Bay if they cross the floor. But wisely, The Gayton is not fighting the Big Three. He’s fighting other tiny parties, and mopping up potential independents – exactly the type of strategy necessary in a looming coalition era.

“We’ve got two wards we’re contesting in this country, and there are 12 to 15 other coloured parties. Our election is against them first and foremost – they’re who we need to beat. We need to become the big boys for the coloured vote. Secondly, it’s about coalition, period. What I’ve learnt in life is that it’s better for three people signing the cheque book. The DA signs alone in Western Cape, the ANC in the rest of the country. No more.”

So we’re looking at a Cape Town in 2006 situation, or better/worse, Israel, with dozens of tiny parties involved in coalition-making, leaving fringe players with immense power?

“Exactly! It’s all about 2019. The way Israel is run, minus the Palestinian issue, that’s how South Africa will be run.”

The Gayton leans towards me, covering several leagues of the boardroom table with his long arms:

“Between April 2014 and April 2015, there are six coloured guys that die every day due to gang violence. Half a rhino died per week during that year. But everywhere, you hear save the rhino.”

I’m thinking of the girls Demona Martin pulls from the lolly lounges, dead-eyed and eternally lost from years of cyclical rehab/relapse/rehab/relapse.

The status quo can’t last. We all know that.

“Who should live,” asks Gayton McKenzie, “the coloured guy or the rhino?” DM

Photo: Patriotic Alliance leader Gayton McKenzie (Richard Poplak)

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