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A SPECIAL SECTION:  Haiti, Since the January 12, 2010 Earthquake
Posted February 15, 2011
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Partying Amid Poverty Stirs South Africa Debate



"I ate sushi off a black girl in Johannesburg," Mr. Kuneme said. "In Cape Town, I ate it off a white girl." He says there will be no more sushi parties.


SANDTON, South Africa — Kenny Kunene, a former gangster turned businessman, gave what he called “the mother of all parties” for his 40th birthday. With his small paunch protruding from a white tuxedo and his eyes hidden behind Roberto Cavalli sunglasses, he ate sushi from the belly of a woman who was wearing nothing but black lingerie and high heels while hundreds of guests looked on.

As the revelers got tipsy on his liquor, he says he treated the most important among them — including Zizi Kodwa, President Jacob Zuma’s stylish spokesman, and Julius Malema, the rabble-rousing leader of the governing party’s youth wing — to $1,300 bottles of Dom Pérignon. Like the American rappers he emulates, Mr. Kunene himself swigged a bottle of Armand de Brignac Champagne that goes for more than $1,500 at his posh nightclub, ZAR, perched on the roof of a five-star hotel.


Kenny Kunene, center, a convicted swindler whose business dealings have gained him access to South Africa's elite, has raised eyebrows with his lifestyle.

His October bash here in Sandton, a Johannesburg suburb often described as the wealthiest square mile in Africa, and another sushi-eating party that Mr. Kunene hosted recently in Cape Town, have turned him into a peculiarly South African sensation. His antics set off raucous bickering in the governing alliance about the conspicuous consumption of a politically networked black elite in a country where the majority of young blacks do not even have jobs.

Zwelinzima Vavi, leader of Cosatu, the powerful trade union federation allied with the governing African National Congress, accused Mr. Kunene of “spitting on the face of the poor” and declared that parties where people who have gotten rich in dubious ways flaunt their wealth “turn my stomach.”

Mr. Kunene, who says he supports the A.N.C.’s Youth League with his time and money, promptly retorted that his was “honest money spent on honest fun.” He describes his success as proof of the nation’s democracy, and he told Mr. Vavi, who is also black: “You remind me of what it felt like to live under apartheid. You are telling me, a black man, what I can and cannot do with my life.”

The Kunene story has crystallized a recurring question about life in post-apartheid South Africa: Is the accumulation and exhibition of such wealth a sign that blacks have finally arrived after an era when whites hogged the high life, or is it evidence of a moral decay undermining Nelson Mandela’s once great liberation movement?

“It raises in such wonderfully stark terms what freedom is and what one does with it,” said Jonny Steinberg, an author and one of the many newspaper columnists who commented on the events. “The idea that one uses it to get rich, and ostentatiously so, and that this is the most important dividend of freedom, is very powerful.”

In recent months, the spectacle of eating sushi from a woman’s body — perhaps familiar to Americans from Samantha’s escapades on “Sex and the City” — has been a source of both lurid fascination and ridicule here. A cartoon by the Mail & Guardian’s Zapiro, titled “The Last Sushi,” depicts a naked woman lying on a long table with well-known businessmen and politicians feasting on the fishy bits that decorate her curves.

That Mr. Kunene, a small-time player in South African politics, has vaulted onto the front pages underscores how salient the issue of economic inequality has become in South Africa, a country that by some estimates has the worst disparities of wealth in the world.

But the focus on Mr. Kunene, nicknamed the Sushi King by headline writers, is also a tribute to his obvious gifts for self-promotion and self-reinvention.

He was raised by his unemployed mother (an evangelical faith healer), his grandfather (a retired English teacher), and his grandmother (a midwife and the family’s only earner) in a black township outside of Odendaalsrus in what is now the Free State. The family could never afford to give him a birthday party, he said, and he always craved luxuries.

When he was a teenager during apartheid, he said he and his friends picked out the houses and cars in wealthy white areas they fantasized would one day be theirs. He dreamed of Porsches. “The objective was to overthrow the government and take everything that the white man had,” he said.

Like his grandfather, he became a high school English teacher. To earn extra money, he opened a small saloon, eavesdropped on gangsters and joined them, hijacking cars, robbing businesses and dreaming up ways to trick people out of their money, he said.

“My heart was not into armed robberies,” he said. “My heart was more into fraud because I’m a thinker.”

But he was caught and convicted in 1997 of helping run a Ponzi scheme. His case alone listed more than 1,900 victims, he said. He served six years in prison. After his release, he went into business with Gayton McKenzie, a bank robber he had befriended behind bars. They sold a book that Mr. McKenzie wrote about quitting a life of crime, and marketed Mr. McKenzie’s motivational speeches to schools and corporate groups.

They invested their earnings in a fish distribution business, Mr. Kunene said, and then started working as consultants to diamond and gold mining companies, helping manage testy relations with restive local communities and navigate the shoals of government regulation in a country governed by a black majority.

Zwelinzima Vavi, a labor leader, has criticized Kenny Kuneme, accusing him of "spitting on the face of the poor."

Last year, Mr. Kunene and Mr. McKenzie helped Gold Fields, a major gold producer, retain its mining rights to the South Deep mine southwest of Johannesburg, which the company describes as “one of the greatest undeveloped ore bodies in the world.”

“It’s a lot of political lobbying work,” explained Sven Lunsche, a Gold Fields spokesman.

At Mr. Kunene’s swanky apartment in Sandton, a snapshot of him with President Zuma is displayed in the living room. On his iPad, he flicked through photographs taken at his birthday party, showing pictures of him with the men he called “Zizi and Julius” — Mr. Zuma’s spokesman and the Youth League leader, Mr. Malema.

At the Cape Town party on Jan. 29, Mr. Malema was quoted as saying that Mr. Kunene’s club belonged to the A.N.C., but he later issued a statement insisting that he had said only that black people have a right to own a club in “predominantly white territory.”

Mr. Malema’s comments prompted Gwede Mantashe, the party’s secretary general, to starchily insist that the A.N.C. “is not into nightclubs or partying, but it is a revolutionary movement. We furthermore reiterate our condemnation to the act of serving sushi on a woman’s body.”

Mr. Kunene this month bowed to his party’s wishes and foreswore sushi parties, but he could not resist noting that in South Africa, the rainbow nation, “I ate sushi off a black girl in Johannesburg. In Cape Town, I ate it off a white girl. I was intending to eat it off an Indian girl in Durban.”

Mr. Kunene has leapt into a life of fame and money, but often on Mondays he gets into one of his Porsches and makes the short drive to the poor and working-class township of Alexandra. “I don’t forget where I come from,” he said.

There he drinks with the regulars at a small bar, the Stoop, and eats a plate of tripe like his mother used to make. House music pumps from speakers, echoing over the township hillside, sparkling with tiny lights.

Last Monday, he left his nightclub, with its purple velvet couches, mirrored wall and sensational views of the Sandton skyline, dressed to impress in $2,000 jeans (“Billionaire brand,” he said, “the most expensive in the world”), pointy-toed purple Italian shoes and a matching belt.

As the evening wore on at the bar in Alex, as the township is sometimes called, men in shirtsleeves who had just finished work gave way to young women with glossy lips who were in a party mood. Mr. Kunene, sitting in a molded plastic chair, nursed his Belvedere vodka and soda and updated his Facebook page.

“Chilling at the Stoop,” he wrote. “The township is the bomb.”

Instantly, he had a rush of responses from some of the thousands of people who have added him as a friend since his birthday party made news.

“Can I join u?” posted one.

“Lucky you,” wrote another.

“Why was I not invited?” asked a third. “Is there sushi?”

Copyright 2011 The New York Times Company. Reprinted from The New York Times, International, of Tuesday, February 15, 2011.

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