The “Sushi King” Kenny Kunene says he’s not used to waking up at 4.30am any more.
“Hey, my brother, that’s prison time. I haven’t done that in a long time.”
Kunene was jailed for several years in the early 2000s for his role in a Ponzi scheme in the Free State. He spent most of his jail time in Grootvlei Prison, during which he participated in the biggest video exposé with now-longtime friend Gayton McKenzie of warder corruption by a group of prisoners in South African history.
He used to be an accomplished con man, but vowed in prison never to return to crime – something he has kept to.
He is a trained teacher and went back to the profession for a while before pursuing his dreams as a businessman and entertainer.
Since his release more than 10 years ago, he has managed to transform himself into a household name, and he says he’s currently hard at work with his record label Nu Money to introduce new hip hop talent.
Today, though, was a far cry from his now more glamorous life. He had to be at the entrance gates to Johannesburg Central – known as “Sun City” to its thousands of prisoners in the south of Joburg – before 5.30am. He was part of the Africa Day programme for the launch of the prison’s Rehabilitation and Reintegration Forum. The forum, he told The Citizen, is a partnership between the City of Joburg, various government departments and correctional services.
He was there with various faith-based organisations from different denominations and religions, the city’s MMCs for health and social development and community safety, as well as the department of correctional services’ regional commissioner. Also present was an NGO called Umbhokotho, which supports ex-offenders with skills development and employment.
The director of the prison took the group of delegates and about 40 prisoners to Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto. There, they were escorted to a wall that prisoners had used for mural artwork.
Kunene said he was most inspired by a phrase on the wall that said: “Let the hand that takes be the hand that gives. Let the hands that hurt be the hands that heal.”
He explained: “We all dipped our hands in paint and places our handprints on the wall as a pledge to accept inmates back into society and to reintegrate them.
“Later, at a big wall at the prison sports field, the prisoners did that themselves.”
At the big sports field, Kunene was the programme director and addressed about 500 assembled prisoners. He offered them a motivational speech based on how they should never lose hope. When he told them his steady girlfriend, known as Nkuli, was there, the prisoners asked for her to reveal herself, and Kunene could only laugh when many of them started shouting “yellowbone” at the sight of her.
He confirmed his plans to marry her, but said she was “in no hurry” despite her now being “the only woman in my life. I told the prisoners I used to have 15 girlfriends, but she’s now the only one. She’s my rib.”
He says the City of Johannesburg spoke about its programmes to create jobs and offer skills development to inmates, while the faith-based leaders explained how they were also doing their part. The department of corrections outlined their programmes, as did a social worker.
Kunene asked the prisoners to offer their own testimonies of having been released on parole and what had brought them back to prison.
“One Indian guy spoke about the stigma of society being the main reason. He started a business but said the community wouldn’t support him. He even said, ‘Even you, Kenny, will be stigmatised by the media forever.’
“Another guy said he went out, got a job, was accepted by the community but ‘wanted to be Kenny Kunene, with the nice cars and flashy life’, so he went back to crime. Now he’s back behind bars. He told the other inmates they needed to be part of the rehabilitation programme with their whole mind and heart.
“A few other guys spoke. Each of them had a story. It was very memorable. I told them not to complain too much about the difficult parole conditions. I had been subject to the same tough conditions, and I made it.”
He said that the officials asked him to remain part of the new forum.
“They told me I’m a living example of what someone can become. We need to break the cycle of crime. If people don’t offer ex-cons another option than again doing crime, then it’s like they’re saying: ‘Just go and do more crime.’
“But they forget that the crimes they might go off and do might be against someone they know and care about. It might be against them.
“So this is an important initiative and I’m going to remain part of it for as long as they want me.”