The Sushi Kingby Brandon Edmonds, illustration by Rico / 11.11.2010
Pragmatic entrepreneur, Jonathan Peacham, the Beggar King, risks a business venture, an Outfitting Emporium for beggars, to ‘combat the increasing callousness of mankind’. It’s an enterprise where ‘the poorest of the poor can acquire an exterior that will touch the hardest of hearts’. This is of course the opening gambit of Brecht’s Threepenny Opera (1928). Peachum explains: “man has the abominable gift of being able to deaden his feelings” so beggars must up their game to go on “arousing human sympathy”. It’s a very suggestive phrase – “acquire an exterior” – and along with the habit of ‘deadening feelings’ towards the poor – takes us right into the disturbing emotional terrain of the ‘new black elite’.
Consider that Kenny Kunene, the Sushi King, drives around in an Audi convertible with a bespoke numberplate shouting in locked caps: SO WHAT! Is there a better encapsulation of the venal vacuity of the Zuma presidency? So what! We’re coming after the press. So what. We’re running a massive deficit. So what. We’re squandering development capital on big ticket infrastructure. So what. We’ve slashed corporate tax despite runaway corporate profit. So what. We’re meeting popular resistance with state violence. You guessed it: So what.
This ‘abominable gift’ of ‘deadened feelings’ towards the poor is really the story of a liberation movement declining in power. A wholesale falling away in praxis (despite progressive rhetoric/and the drip feed of social grants) of the centrality of the urgent needs of the many and the most vulnerable. The Hani legacy. A governing class that has slipped from the moral promontory of get free to the loathsome present low of get-rich-quick by any means necessary. As William Gumede puts it: the ANC has lost its soul.
Kunene might as well be in The Threepenny Opera so naked is his self-regard and replete his indifference. Kenny exemplifies the Zuma era. But who the hell is he?
Well Kenny was a teacher, but the pay sucks. So he tried financial fraud. Much better dividends but he got caught and did time at Grootvlei. It got murky in prison. Some sort of toe-nail clipping warder extortion thing. Shit happens to Kenny. He then ‘made his millions’ from mining, investment consulting and ‘venture capital’ – after being released in 2003. Kenny knows what you’re thinking – and counters: “Why should a black person when successful be viewed as having made his money from tenders or questionable means?” Why indeed.
These days the jailbird, “fourth on the list of SA’s most eligible bachelors”, along with a fellow ex-con business partner, apparently hoisted aloft by the angels of ingenuity, enjoys the archetypal good life. He resides at the Sandton Emperor in Morningside where units reach a hefty R16m a pop. Along with a permanent room at the Radisson Blu hotel. His rides are a hip hop litany of luxury: Mercs, Porsches and Beamers. Kunene has a stake in a company that returns operational capacity to long dead mineshafts. Combing through old holes for whatever gold remains. See how resonant Kenny’s life is! Is that not a powerful encapsulation of Black Economic Empowerment: mining old riches for scraps? Residents around these voids, in Meadowlands and Diepkloof, in Orlando East and West, have long since protested and sued over the resultant environmental/and health hazards – Kunene as ‘executive of communities’ runs interference for the company, putting out fires and stringing community representatives along. “I do no work for government. I’ve never benefitted from any BEE deal. I am grateful that my businesses are successful. They allow me to buy the same things that others may have had to be corrupt to buy.” Kenny also has fingers in publishing, many company directorships, and a glitzy sinkhole in Sandton called ZAR.
As he puts it, “During Apartheid, (wealthy) blacks were afraid to show their money.” Not anymore. ‘Acquiring an exterior’ is all about showing the money. “I had dreams,” says Kunene. “I looked up to honourable people such as Patrice Motsepe and Cyril Ramaphosa, and said to myself, ‘if they can do it so can I’.” Kenny fervently lives that emulative/aspirational logic (life as a reality show challenge) and it appeals to striving (fitfully educated) young South Africans too. “Thanks Kenny,” someone writes on his Facebook wall, “limits can only come from within ourselves, when we allow negativity – I love your constant encouragement for all of us to succeed. Thanks a mill!” Better yet: “let them haters watch the money pile up.” And it does. Kunene recently spent over R700k on his own birthday bash. Raw fish got served off paid models. Hence the title Sushi King. Malema was there, along with his flunky Floyd Shivambu, Zuma’s spokesperson, Zizi Kodwa, and inevitably Khanyi Mbau. The party struck a nerve with the traditional left. It struck a nerve with our very own Peacham figure, our own Beggar King, Zwelinzima Vavi – the Cosatu general-secretary. Before we get into Vavi’s fascinating tangle with the Sushi King – it’s good to know the crackling background.
Roused by the militancy and commitment of the recent public sector strike (involving over 1.3 million workers countrywide), a strike union leadership prevented from evolving into a General Strike, by accepting the government’s numbers, the Congress of SA Trade Unions, is finally re-finding its critical edge. An internal political discussion paper, available thanks to tireless local scholar-activist Patrick Bond, whose analysis informs my own, could not be more strident: “if we don’t act decisively, we are heading rapidly in the direction of a full-blown predator state – in which a powerful, corrupt elite increasingly controls the state as a vehical for accumulation.” This is the revolutionary backdrop to ‘lifestyle audits’. It’s the real reason Vavi snapped at Kenny – calling him one of the “predatory elite”.
Vavi continues: “I am told at one party sushi was served from the bodies of half-naked ladies. It’s the sight of these parties where the elite display their wealth, often secured by questionable methods, that turns my stomach.” There were 66 bottles of Dom Perignon consumed at Kunene’s party, 36 of Cristal, and 32 of 18 year-old Chivas Regal – a tipple bill amounting to around half a million rand alone. Kenny fired back. “This thing of a human sushi platter happens all over the world. If it doesn’t happen in SA then I’m a trendsetter! I get really frustrated when an honest hard-working man like myself cannot even enjoy my own birthday party. You remind me what it felt like to live under apartheid: you are telling me, a black man, what I can and cannot do with my life.” Vavi is unmoved. Society is “very sick” he claims, allowing “massive inequalities and (class) apartheid to continue”, and since “greed is inspired by the conspicuous consumption of the new elite”, Vavi thundered, “we want our freedom back from the elite and all these rogue elements. Their party must come to an end.” Still Kenny refused to be ‘re-educated’. He pointed out that growing up poor meant his birthdays were never celebrated. “Vavi is the biggest hypocrite I have ever met. I’m no ‘tenderpreneur’. I earn my money with the hard work I’ve put in for a very long time. I am not ashamed or embarrassed. I am having honest fun. Vavi hates to see young black men succeed and it makes me sick to my stomach.” Apparently Kenny burst into his party to DJ Khaled’s triumphal rap “All I Do is Win” (‘got money on my mind / I can never get enough’) and ‘popped a bottle of champagne – Grand Prix style – and sprayed it all around’.
It’s tempting to side with Vavi, our Beggar King, who seems to be championing the poor, showing Kenny and the ‘predatory elite’ in a critical light, valiantly speaking truth to power. But Brecht’s great play refuses ‘good’ and ‘bad’ binaries. Those moral luxuries are irrelevant in the context of generalized capitalist exploitation.
Peachum, the Beggar King, is himself venal and self-serving. He runs a ‘protection racket’ extracting up to 50% of what beggars make. Vavi has recently owned up to a sweet take home salary, culled directly from union dues, of R500k. An earnings multiple that takes him far from the subsistence level of his support base. This alone drops him neatly into the category of the ‘predatory elite’. It somewhat hollows out the integrity of his rhetoric. As Kunene rightly reminded us Vavi attended tech tycoon Robert Gumede’s R50 million wedding earlier this year. Foregoing the opportunity back then to hammer away at the ‘predatory elite’. South African political life, along with Brecht’s masterpiece, is a zone ‘beyond good and evil’. Vavi’s wife, before she quit, enjoyed R60k a month from SA Quantum for ‘marketing the company’s financial products to union members’. The company tried to bribe the Mail & Guardian into killing the story. Vavi shrugged off the conflict of interest. Kenny has since poked that bruise relentlessly. “Vavi enjoys a lavish lifestyle just like me and he has the nerve to criticize. It’s ludicrous. He hides behind his wife and spends her money. I am self-made.”
There you have it. Welcome to the dizzying pitfalls of SA political discourse. A convicted fraudster, a Sushi king, trades glibly self-justifying lifestyle propaganda with a belated firebrand, a Beggar King, who sits atop an organisation allied to the same value-extracting ‘predatory elite’ that ultimately keeps the many who pay his salary in misery! We’ll leave the last word to good old Bishop T: “We imagined that because we had this noble cause,” Tutu said, “the vast majority of people were idealistic. We thought we were going to transfer it automatically to the time when we were free – it hasn’t happened.”
*Illustration © Rico.