Last dance at Club ZAR
Kenny Kunene’s Johanneburg legendary nightclub closed recently. But before it did, Bongani Madondo visited the bling king’s chambers for one final boogie and spoke to the man himself. Here is their candid, free-wheeling conversation on Zwelinzima Vavi as a marketing tactic, sushi for tenderpreneurs and keeping it real.
‘Vroom, vrooooom-roooooohm,” revs the sound of a motorbike the size of a baby Harley. (If there is a baby grand piano there should be a baby Harley Davidson, right?)
The silver beast with a blueish plastic top springs up right in the middle of Club ZAR. Sitting astride the motorbike is a young lass, undressed but for the slit of a red lacey see-through number hugging her bum.
All eyes are on her.
Slowly, she simulates a humping act on the beast. Men’s eyes fire up. She is in a good mood and so is everyone else. She tells me she is Sweet Chaos Mashiane. “I am 25, from Limpopo, and studying to be a chef.” We make a deal: “I will tell you everything, but don’t put my picture in the paper. Mommy will kill me.”
She is cooperative. No one is forcing her to do anything—at least on the surface of things.
“I am a part-time model,” she says. Feminists would go crazy just looking at her. She shoots me a wicked “don’t even go there, I don’t care for your values” look. I get it and shut my trap. Money talks, babes ride the bikes, right? “I’m lovin’ this moment,” she says.
Half an hour to voodoo hour, it looks like the lady humping the bike is not the only one “lovin’ this”. Revellers here go about their business as though they were born for it. Officially, it is ZAR’s closing party and the launch of host Kenny Kunene’s CD, ZAR Sushi Mix, but no one could care less.
Evelyn Waugh, the 1930s English satirist, would have “loved this” too. It is a world torn straight from his Depression-era classic, Vile Bodies, peopled with characters with names such as the infamous Agatha Runcible, Adam Fenwick-Symes and Mr Chatterbox. In Waugh’s masterpiece, the wealthy English upper crust and the political jet-set, zombies around looking for the next upscale hit, party, or both.
ZAR’s “last supper” feels eerily like a modern update. A sea of young ladies in various states of undress, fashionable platform shoes and made-in-Bombay, mail-order human hair wigs, weaves and whatchamacallit rules, ok? Few men wear suits.
It could be my eyes, but it feels like people do not walk as much as float around, wearing watermelon smiles. Many of them look pretty smacked up, too. But most swear the joint does not sell blow. Never has.
“We are just having the time of our lives. Why don’tcha, too? Put that ugly notebook down,” orders a girl I do not know. “My name is Jacqui. They call me Jack Zo-Zo. Have a life, okay, eish! Laba bama speks!?”
It is my first time at ZAR. Apart from the occasional junket, I usually give clubs a wide berth.
“You don’t know what you been missing,” another patron – “just call me Mpumi” – who drove all the way from Durban, tells me, before cornering me and pointing at a secluded area: “I want that guy. I want that big guy.” She is pointing at Gayton McKenzie, ZAR’s co-owner. “I see you look respectable. What are you, an investor, journalist or something? Who wears black tie to these do’s?” The scorn in her voice could anaesthetise a raging bull.
“I am sure you can connect me. See, all these slender girls aiming for that man don’t faze me a bit. This,” she pats her protruding side-speakers of hips, “always wins the day.” She says it in pitch-perfect isiZulu. You can imagine how erotic it sounds. But you can also imagine the piercing sharpness of the venom she directs towards other young women.
“I drive my own car and can make means to see him whenever he wishes, please help, toe.”
Untangling myself from her grip, I feel disgusted. But I also experience a rush of excited curiosity. Is this what I have been missing? In the law of the neon-lit jungle, female hunter-gatherers rule, right?
11:55pm. The night is young.
I have been sent to ZAR’s closing boogie-down with no brief at all other than that this is not a showbiz piece. Go, have fun and observe. The assigning editor left unsaid the words: “Go see how young black South Africans and new money enjoy themselves, you old toff.”
Rumour has it that the venture has failed. This is veiled speak for “Kenny, the ex-convict who once fell butt first into a bowl of butter, has now hit the mud”, trampled by a lifestyle he could not afford in the first place.
Even though ZAR, which has another, much posher, sister in Cape Town, is one of the business ventures co-owned by the two fellows, haters are heaping it on Kunene’s carnivalesque flamboyance. Eating raw fish off the naked bodies of young women did not win him friends either.
The last boogie
But now the club is, to use the youth argot, “bouncy” as hell. There is a riot of lights at the makeshift “VVIP” section. An army of television and still cameras are trained on a character with a shiny bald dome and fancy dark glasses.
Kunene, aka Majozi, aka Ngwaneso, aka the Sushi King, is holding court. A lanky tabloid journalist conducts a lengthy interview. I wait my turn. The security chaps in lovely suits tell me to exercise patience. One of them introduces himself. “I am Serge Cristiano. Like Ronaldo Cristiano.”
It is noisy. I strain my ears to seem charitable to Serge. “I am Serge from Angola. I louve de Mail & Guardian.You were de only paper that was dere for me during my eight years of wrongful trial. I am suing the state for R4-million. Have you had drinks, mister?”
“No, Serge. Not even a tot of Kool-Aid.”
“What do you drinks? Lemme get something for you.”
Off he disappears amid a whiff of expensive perfume and perspiration shooting from under million-dollar tube dresses and muscle tops. I feel like Serge from Angola has been unleashed on me. He returns sans drinks, ushering me into Kunene’s space. Rope removed, I extend my hand to the man.
“Aw-ha-ha-ha, my bruddah,” Kunene pins my small shoulders down in a bear hug. He smells like a million dollars. Before I can get my three seconds of infamy with him, the interview is interrupted. From the DJ booth his pal, famed music producer Oskido, announces: “Hail Kenny Kunene. Kenny Kunene is a rock star.” Before the boof-boof sounds out and “rock star” Kunene himself takes over the turntable to display his long-held childhood aspiration to be a deejay, I notice he wears two watches. “One is Rolex Oyster with diamonds inside and this on the left is an IMC,” he tells me, dashing to the stage.
After the set I swim through the tide of young women and hangers-on and claim my two-minute interview.
What will happen to your staff? He is quick to counter: “They are not losing their jobs. Whoever is saying these people are losing their jobs is fucking nuts. They are being redeployed to my other business ventures.” He actually said “redeployed”.
Even when he is happiest, he says “fuckin” this” and “fuckin” that, much more often than the rudest species of humanity: pirates, rappers and journalists, in that order.
But he is not getting away easily from this one. Kenny, what business ventures are you talking about?
“Yo, bro, I have venture capital investments, equity, you know, I play around, I am hustler. I am a risk-taker. All my business is moving into a warehouse, which will operate like a huge production house. I am getting into clothing, perfume and getting ZAR to operate as a pop-up marquee venture.”
I am waved out with a “let’s do lunch on Sunday”.
Seeing me lost in the sweat, suggestive sex, bling and expensive hooch (that other king of radical Afro-debauchery, Fela Kuti, once referred to this sort of thing as “expensive shit”), a well-attired tabloid hack, Sunday Sun‘s editor Prince Chauke, beckons me over.
I size him up. Mmmh, not too bad. Journalists are not known for their sartorial elegance. The tabloids’ bin diggers seem to have been cut from a silkier cloth, though.
‘This is our style’
“My man, sit down,” he commands. “Relax. This,” he throws his hands mad-flapping about, as though surveying his livestock, “is our life, mah man. There’s nothing we can do. This is our style. We just can’t help it. It’s a new-money society, chief. Look, I get paid to party. Watchoo wanna drink?”
Later, Chauke, clearly big mates with the ZAR bling, introduces me to a newly arrived ANC Youth League spinmeister, Floyd Shivambu. I am curious about how he and his band of renegades are keeping, seeing as the ANC is pretty set on kicking their asses into the political wilderness.
It does not look like a lot of people are exactly mourning ZAR’s demise. Later, a fetching young lady, in a flowing cream number and million-dollar weave throws herself round my neck. Not too sure who it is, I do a double take. Why, but, it’s the queen of the night herself, Ms Khanyi Mbau! How to carry oneself in this sort of exalted company? I oblige her, smacking a smooch on either side of her chiselled cheeks in that Jozi social scene’s oh-so-fey, feigned familiarity.
“It is good that ZAR is closing,” she says. “It started as an exclusive joint, but, ah! What can you say? Sleaze balls had become a permanent feature. Kenny himself lost it. The plot. He should decide whether he wants to be a politician or do this.”
At about 4am I duck out, soaked in sweat. My perceptions are mixed. I do not know what, exactly, the noise was about ZAR’s closing. To me, it looked like an ordinary club, except, of course, it was not. What do I know?
I hooked up with Kenny Kunene at 183 Corlett Drive Carwash in Bramley on February 27 2012 at 4pm, where I interviewed the bible-quoting ‘Sushi King’.
BM: Who is Kenny Kunene?
KK: I’m a caring South African, born and bred in the township. I am the third child and second son of Nancy Kunene and Motsamai Seagele.
My siblings are the late Disebo (the only girl), Papiki and Neo, the last of the brothers.
My African name is Thapelo (prayer). Kunene is my mother’s maiden name. She and my dad divorced just after I was born.
I was born and raised in Kutlwanong Township, in Welkom, in the then Orange Free State.
BM: Growing up memories?
KK: There are a lot. Chief amongst them is the memory of my grandparents, under whom I was partly raised. My granddad was a disciplinarian, an intellectual and a snazzy dresser.
Every day, without fail, he would take a full bath in a waskom skottel (basin), put on his suit, and go sit on his lazy-chair outside, to read his newspapers or books. He had a different suit on every day.
My granny was the family’s and the clan’s breadwinner. In my teens I sold apples, and other chowables at school.
When the principal eventually stopped my small business, done with respectable school frame hours, I got a job at Morgan’s Inn, a local tavern, picking up empty bottles and bottle tops.
I was always on the hustle, yo!
BM: Why and how come such a hard worker ended up in jail, then?
KK: I grew up loving nice things: The good life. And I could not afford it. I also loved the Porsche brand so much that knowing I couldn’t afford the car (drove a 1984 white Golf), I settled for a pair of Porsche label shoes.
I basically left home for good when I went to varsity. I got involved in crime when I was in university. Vista University, the Welkom Campus; house breaking and stuff. My actual imprisonment crime was fraud.
The three of us ran what was then a brilliant pyramid scheme. An inmate serving time for rape shopped us to the cops to save his skin. After that his case was reviewed, quashed and he walked a free man.
The victim never consulted at all. Obviously I am disgusted at my own involvement in crime. That was the pre-2002 Kenny. Now I am a changed man.
BM: What does Gayton McKenzie mean to you?
KK: Will tell you what I shared on Twitter: “Friends will love you at all times, brothers are born for moments of adversity.” It actually comes from the Book of Proverbs.
Gayton and I—our brotherhood is soaked in blood. A brother goes with you to the grave. Look, everyone we thought would still be here with us is gone. Not part of us anymore.
Other than his blood family, Gayton and I have nothing but what we mean to each other.
BM: Sounds like a gangster oath, say the 28s, the Berliners or the Cripps. “Soaked in blood.” Is that a prison oath?
KK: It is what Gayton means to me—period. No amount of money, no beauty of a woman, no power can come between me and that brother. I become emotional when I talk about that brother.
BM: Sounds like a down low love. Are you straight?
KK: (Emits huge laughter): What? I’ve never done a man in prison. How can I now turn otherwise outside where there’s an over-abundance of women? I balled women in and out. I balled prison female warders, and I still ball women today.
BM: You were involved in a very public spat with heavyweight trade unionist Zwelinzima Vavi in which you basically responded to his disgust at ZAR’s “sushi practice”, implying that that dude is a champagne socialist. Looking back, do you think it was a good move to lock horns with Vavi?
KK: Two answers. The first is rooted in the Romans 8 verse 28: “Everything works together for the good of those who love God.” God gave me that verse when I was in prison.
Although not intended to, my taking on Vavi has worked for my own good, in fact. Secondly, I come from a gangster background and was taught a lot in prison. In those worlds, no man disrespects and you keep quiet.
Vavi disrespected me in front of women (yes that’s plural), my children, my business clients and the whole country. But you know, I am no chicken-shit.
Look, I am no pussy. I am not afraid of any man. I only fear God. Vavi? I have absolutely no regrets. I don’t care if you are the richest man or president of the most powerful country in the world, if you insult my integrity, I will take you on.
BM: What is the real reason behind ZAR’s closure?
KK: Like I said, we had an agreement and a contract with our host, Radisson Blu. We didn’t anticipate their business would expand/grow in the rate it did since we opened on their top floor.
But they did. And they were our hosts. We don’t own the Radisson. Sometimes when it’s time to go, it’s time to go. But ZAR is still a business. It has not died with our closing of the Sandton branch. We are looking …
BM: Do you think Black South Africa was ready for an upscale club like the one you had in mind?
KK: Yes and no. Soon after we got the place up we realised that South Africa was not ready, but the World Cup gave us the much-needed boost.
The business around 2010 World Cup time basically gave us a leg-up. We still believe there’s a market out there.
BM: How much is Kenny Kunene worth?
BM: Are you a spender or an investor?
KK: Both. I have spent a lot on things I love. People have spent on me. We have business interests out of the country. When I arrived in Russia our Russian business associate treated me like a mini-god.
The rich there know how to enjoy their money. Money needs to be spent, it’s not like I am going to take my money with me to the grave. But I also invest. Some are good, some are terrible investments.
We lost a good R15-million with the international hip-hop concert tour we brought to Southern Africa. You win some, you lose some.
BM: Do you consider yourself “rich” or do you consider yourself as “wealthy”?
KK: Like I said, talk to my financial manager.
BM: Can I have his contact details, please?
KK: (Laughs). I try. People should give me a break, I try. I’m not even doing it to brag.
But how many of you in the media know that I have paid full bursaries for top students at Wits and UJ, paid for their apartments close to schools, gave them laptops, have had soccer tournaments launched by the Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga for 20 schools with prize money, and so on?
BM: Oh c’mon on, Kenny. The press is not there to do your public relations. You don’t publicise all your good deeds. How come your marketing genius is restricted to you getting coverage for mostly bling high-jinx?
KK: Most of you journalists pursue the lurid and headline-making events. You don’t care to know how many kindergartens I have provided blankets and food? All you know is that we gave the MKMVA R1-million for the cadres’ burial fund.
But you don’t even research what one has been doing in the communities. I come from a poor family. I know how it feels to be poor: none of those poor people love being poor.
It’s not sexy. You guys make it seem like a great political topic. It is, but practically it’s a hard life.
I try in my own little way to say: look folks, I care. If I had R100-billion, I would make sure all of poverty is eradicated. I’m serious.
BM: You know that when you tell me you are living large and I see it as well, I am going to need to see your papers, and some proof of such claims, right? Too many before you have claimed to be millionaires only to find that they are ghetto super-flys who have stashed just a tidy amount not quite commensurate with their public lifestyles, right?
KK: I know that and I am not afraid of showing papers. We can even go to my house tonight, and you can check whatever you want to check.
(Although it was late in the night: 9.35pm, I called his bluff and took the offer to go check whatever documentation exists at his house. He showed me some, and told me a lot is at his house in the Free State. I told him I would love to go see more, within reasonable business and legal permission)
BM: Is it true you are divorcing?
KK: That’s a pack of lies. Every relationship has its own ups and downs. Ours is no different. Go ask my wife if we are divorcing. There’s nothing like that.
BM: Do you care about being “loved” or care about being “respected”?
KK: I don’t care for either. I won’t go seek them. Although if they come, I embrace them from whatever angle they come from.
BM: You are highly visible in political events, have political friends such as Julius Malema, and have had a highly publicised presence at President Jacob Zuma’s daughter’s wedding. Do you consider yourself a political animal, a businessman or a showman?
KK: Like Jay-Z said, I am business, man! I am also a natural born entertainer. One of my favourite films is Scarface.
That scene where Tony Montana rocks to pick his boss’ lady with a rickety Valiant and she purred: “You came to fetch me with that?” And he says: “What do you want?” She says “a Porsche” and he says: “Come, let’s go get some Porsche.”
They drove to a Porsche dealership, just like that. He got his lady a brand new Porsche. Can you beat that, for entertainment value, huh?
First published in the Mail and Guardian, South Africa.