South Africa's new sports minister promotes car spinning: NPR

Three young spectators cover their faces from rubber debris and smoke on the rotating field at the Wheelz n Smoke arena, on July 7, 2024, Johannesburg, South Africa

Kyle Thosmon for NPR


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Kyle Thosmon for NPR

JOHANNESBURG — South Africa’s new minister of sport, arts and culture robbed his first bank at the tender age of 16, but notes that it “wasn’t as glamorous as the movies make it out to be.”

Gayton McKenzie's career followed an unusual path: from poverty to wealth, from gangs to government, from prison to parliament.

A seismic shift in South Africa's political landscape in May's election was what ultimately earned McKenzie a cabinet position. The African National Congress (ANC), which has governed since the time of Nelson Mandela, lost its parliamentary majority in May for the first time in 30 years.

The ANC was forced to form a coalition government and McKenzie's Patriotic Alliance (PA) was one of ten other parties to join.

Suddenly McKenzie, the ex-convict, became a cabinet minister. He did so with great humor during his swearing-in ceremony.

McKenzie, 50, tells NPR about growing up in poverty, in a neighborhood where street gangs were prevalent during apartheid.

Elon Rayners hand out Patriotic Alliance shirts at the Wheelz n Smoke Arena.

Elon Rayners hand out Patriotic Alliance shirts at the Wheelz n Smoke Arena.

Kyle Thomson for NPR


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Kyle Thomson for NPR

“The area you're born into determines … what gang you're going to be in. And it's still like that in South Africa — the area defines, 'oh you're born on the American side, the Philadelphia Kids' or whatever gang you're in,” he says.

He also claims that he joined a gang because he felt that “criminals were the only ones who were free” under the brutal system of racial oppression.

He was in and out of prison in his teens, until he was sentenced to 17 years in prison at age 20. He says he actually welcomed it.

“Where we grew up, going to prison was a badge of honor, it’s like … going to Harvard or Princeton,” he says. “When I got out of prison, I had my bones made.”

In prison, McKenzie was a gang leader, but also became a whistleblower. He secretly stuck and exposed corruption and prison abuse that led to an official investigation.

Spinners Kayla Oliphant and WheelznSmoke owner Monde Hashe.

Spinners Kayla Oliphant and WheelznSmoke owner Monde Hashe.

Kyle Thomson for NPR

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Kyle Thomson for NPR

When he was released from prison after 10 years, after being granted early release, he decided to reinvent himself as a businessman, first, as he tells it, becoming a “dollar millionaire” through a seafood distribution business.

He later invested in mining and nightclubs. One of the nightclubs he co-owned with an old friend from prison, Kenny Kunene, who became known as South Africa's “Sushi King,” after throwing a famous birthday party where guests were able to eat the Japanese delicacy made by naked models.

Meanwhile, McKenzie was also a motivational speaker at high schools and wrote a book about his life called The Hustler's Bible.

From prison to parliament

But he wanted to go into politics.

In 2013, he founded the PA, a right-wing populist party that claimed to represent the interests of McKenzie's “coloured” community, an official, non-derogatory term in South Africa that refers to people of mixed backgrounds.

The PA is advocating the mass deportation of immigrants who entered the country from other African countries without permission. McKenzie blames immigrants for taking away jobs and services in South Africa. He once said he would not hesitate to 'turn off' the oxygen of a hospitalized Mozambican or Zimbabwean and give it to a South African.

Zwikhodo 'Ziko', performs a powerslide at the Wheelz n Smoke Arena, July 7, 2024, in Johannesburg, South Africa

Zwikhodo 'Ziko', performs a powerslide at the Wheelz n Smoke Arena, July 7, 2024, in Johannesburg, South Africa

Kyle Thomson for NPR


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Kyle Thomson for NPR

His party's manifesto also calls for the reintroduction of the death penalty and conscription.

Since being appointed sports minister on July 3, McKenzie has pledged to tackle corruption in his sector, but he has also been investigated on allegations of corruption relating to the time he was mayor of a local municipality, from 2022 to 2023. One of the issues being investigated by the Western Cape High Court is where the funds from a gala dinner went.

The PA was a small political party on the South African political scene, but that changed this year. The party received about 2% of the vote in elections, which equates to nine seats in parliament, making it the sixth largest party in South Africa. The party did particularly well in coloured areas, where McKenzie's message and life story resonated.

Spectators in the stands cheer as the spinning show begins, at the Wheelz n Smoke arena, on July 7, 2024, Johannesburg, South Africa

Spectators in the stands cheer as the spinning show begins, at the Wheelz n Smoke arena, on July 7, 2024, Johannesburg, South Africa

Kyle Thomson for NPR


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Kyle Thomson for NPR

McKenzie's trademark humor was on full display in his swearing-in ceremonyby South Africa's highest court this month. When the judge asked the new minister to sit down, the ex-convict joked: “The last time a judge asked me to sit down, he made me sit for 10 years.”

“I will be the best secretary,” McKenzie tells NPR, with his broad smile and a hint of Donald Trump-esque bravado.

Promoting the “petrol heads”

Not everyone agrees with McKenzie's own assessment of himself. Since President Cyril Ramaphosa appointed him as minister of sport, arts and culture, artistic personalities and local media have complained that he is unqualified for the role. Given what many South Africans see as his unpalatable politics and background, many argue that he should not be in cabinet at all.

A leading political cartoonist, known as Zapiro, depicted the minister with a bloody baseball bat labeled “sport” and a guitar case containing a gun labeled “culture.”

But McKenzie is stunned.

Spinners Iki Khan and Stacey-lee May.

Spinners Iki Khan and Stacey-lee May.

Kyle Thomson for NPR


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Kyle Thomson for NPR

As for the arts, he wants to make them more accessible and “destigmatize” them, since where he grew up, if you were interested in art you were bullied because you weren't an “alpha male.”

For sports, he wants to start promoting something he’s passionate about: car spinning. It’s a dangerous local motorsport and subculture that originated in South African ganglands and involves driving souped-up BMWs in wild circles, often while the passenger — or driver — climbs out of the car window to perform hair-raising stunts.

Spinning began in South Africa's apartheid townships as a funeral ritual for gangsters; a way to honor the fallen. Most often, the cars used were stolen.

Today it happens both legally at organized events on car circuits and illegally on street corners. It can be deadly, cars have gone out of control in the past, killing or injuring spectators.

Young boys imitate mechanics working on running cars at the Wheelz n Smoke Arena, July 7, 2024, in Johannesburg, South Africa

Young boys imitate mechanics working on running cars at the Wheelz n Smoke Arena, July 7, 2024, in Johannesburg, South Africa

Kyle Thomson for NPR


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Kyle Thomson for NPR

McKenzie says he wants to regulate it. He claims that in gang-infested areas, when there is a car spin event, “crime goes down.”

“I've been spinning my whole life, so I know when they say 'petrol heads,' you can't stop those kids from spinning.”

Last weekend, riders and spectators at a spinning event in Johannesburg were excited about the minister's big plans for their sport.

Sunesh 'Sushi' Pursad, Spinner, performs stunt on spinning pitch at Wheelz n Smoke Arena, July 7, 2024, Johannesburg, South Africa

Sunesh 'Sushi' Pursad, Spinner, performs stunt on spinning pitch at Wheelz n Smoke Arena, July 7, 2024, Johannesburg, South Africa

Kyle Thomson for NPR


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Kyle Thomson for NPR

Tires screeched and smoke billowed from the asphalt as a brightly colored car raced wildly around a makeshift track on a dusty patch of land in a poor neighborhood outside Johannesburg.

As the vehicle zigzagged back and forth at dizzying speeds, the passenger climbed precariously out of the window and onto the roof.

The crowd, gathered around the track – wrapped in thick coats against the winter chill – went wild.

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