Braaivleis, Rugby, Sunny Skies and Chérizier

Andrew Donaldson says recent events in Haiti point to one possible future for South Africa


ANYONE interested in a glimpse of a possible future South Africa may wish to consider the career path of a Haitian individual known as Barbecue. 

That, of course, is not what it says on the 47-year-old’s birth certificate. Jimmy Chérizier claims he was given the nickname through his mother’s occupation; she sold fried chicken on the streets of the run-down capital, Port-au-Prince. 

No, say many of his critics, that’s not it. He’s called Barbecue (Babekyou in the local dialect) because he has a habit of incinerating his victims.

Chérizier is Haiti’s most powerful warlord, a key figure in the gang uprising that on Tuesday prompted Ariel Henry, prime minister of the impoverished country, to announce that he would be standing down “immediately after the installation of a [transitional] council”.

This follows months of turmoil which escalated dramatically in the past fortnight. Heavily armed gangs shut down the nation’s airport, razed police stations and raided two of Haiti’s largest prisons, freeing more than 4 000 inmates. Scores of people have been killed in Port-au-Prince, and more than 15 000 are homeless after fleeing neighbourhoods raided by gangs. Stores are empty and the main port in the capital remains closed, stranding dozens of containers with critical supplies.

At the time of writing, Henry remained stuck in Puerto Rico, unable to return home following a trip to Kenya where he had attended talks concerning a UN-backed, multinational security mission in Haiti. The mayhem kicked off on 29 February, the day Henry landed in Nairobi, as gangsters and vigilantes clashed with the capital’s beleaguered police force. Within hours, most businesses and institutions in Port-au-Prince had closed and thousands were fleeing the city.

“We have chosen to take our destiny in our own hands,” Chérizier announced in a video shared on social media. “The battle we are waging will not only topple the Ariel [Henry] government. It is a battle that will change the whole system.”

“System” in not a term that seems applicable in Haiti’s case, implying as it does a degree of structure and organisation. Anarchy, if I may, is instead the order of the day, and has been so for years now.

Henry had served as a supposedly interim prime minister following the assassination on 7 July 2021 of president Jovenel Moïse. His chaotic tenure in office was, astonishingly, the longest single term a prime minister had served since the approval of Haiti’s 1987 constitution. Elections had been promised but repeatedly postponed with Henry insisting that order and security first be restored. 

That was never on the cards. The gangs instead expanded their territorial control. Last month, it was claimed that almost 5 000 people had been killed and about 300 000 others had been driven from their homes in the previous year, while the fighting blocked access to food and medical services as the capital was repeatedly held to ransom.

Even now, Henry has appealed for a return to normality. “I’m asking all Haitians to remain calm,” he said in his resignation announcement, “and do everything they can for peace and stability to come back as fast as possible.”

That hardly seems likely, especially with Chérizier on the scene. He was born in the 1970s during the brutal reign of Baby Doc Duvalier and probably acquired a taste for violence in the traditional manner — as a member of the national police force, specifically with the Unité départementale de maintien d’ordre, a riot squad whose members have been accused of shooting protesters dead. 

He was kicked out the force for his alleged involvement in a number of criminal activities and atrocities. The most notorious of these was the so-called La Saline massacre in November 2018, in which 71 people were butchered in this slum in the capital, seven women raped and more than 400 homes torched. Despite denials of wrongdoing, Chérizier has been sanctioned by both the US and the UN for these crimes. 

He soon reappeared on the scene as the leader of a gang alliance known as the G9 Family and Allies, which controls some of Port-au-Prince’s largest slums and Haiti’s most important road arteries. This group has on several occasions paralysed the country by cutting off fuel supplies and forcing schools and hospitals to close.

Chérizier is, unsurprisingly, a raging narcissist. Murals in the slums depict him as Che Guevara and, according to the Guardian, he presents himself as a “God-fearing Caribbean Robin Hood” in media interviews where he celebrates such figures as Malcolm X, Fidel Castro and Thomas Sankara, the pan-African Marxist who ruled Burkina Faso from his coup in 1983 to his assassination in 1987. “I like Martin Luther King, too,” the New Yorker quoted him as saying last year. “But he didn’t like fighting with guns, and I fight with guns.”

He has described his fighting as a noble crusade in defence of the impoverished in Haiti’s urban slums. As he put it in a 2022 interview, his G9 gang alliance is “a sociopolitical structure and force that is fighting on behalf of the vulnerable”. Last year he told Associated Press, “I’m not a thief. I’m not involved in kidnapping. I’m not a rapist. I’m just carrying out a social fight.”

Unsurprising, too, are Chérizier’s political ambitions. The BBC has reported that the gangs are pushing to be included in “any new power-sharing deal” that may emerge in Haiti following Henry’s departure from office. Chérizier, said to enjoy “high-level” political connections, may well regard such a career move as being enormously profitable.

“Barbecue is engaging and really is a natural politician … when I met him, I knew straightaway [he] was a force to be reckoned with,” the Sky News correspondent Stuart Ramsay wrote after meeting him last year. “He sees himself as a revolutionary fighting against the dark corruption of government and oligarch businessmen, but make no mistake, he is an out-and-out gangster.”

We know the type. Journalists and activists have for some years now described South Africa as a “gangster state” and reported on the “killing fields” of KwaZulu-Natal and elsewhere as ANC members turn on one another. This, for example, from Vanessa Burger, a human rights activist in KZN: 

“[The] the evaluation of human life has kept pace with our wounded economy. Life is cheap and taking it has become a trade — a way out of poverty — for many. Not since the Apartheid-era hit squads threatened South Africa’s nascent democracy immediately before and after 1994, has death stalked our nation with such impunity.”

That was in May 2018. Since then, political violence and criminality has worsened, particularly in KZN, and it is not difficult to imagine a time, sooner rather than later, when gangsters of Barbecue’s ilk will brazenly prey on citizens in the province, and perhaps further afield. As it is, video clips of Durban’s garbage-filled streets on social media reveal such squalor that parity with Port-au-Prince may not be too far in the offing. 

The rhetoric has also acquired a Haitian tone. Previously, one supposed that garbled bellicosity was largely the province of the EFF and its blowhard commander-in-chief, Julius Malema. But, in terms of sheer menace, the redshirts have been outgunned by the new UmKhonto we Sizwe Party.

Given that this sorry lot has reportedly placed Jacob Zuma at the top of its national candidate list for the 29 May general election, it is tempting to dismiss them as a joke. It would be foolish to do so, though; the MKP is gaining support hand over fist in KZN.

The increasingly crotchety former president is, according to the IEC, not eligible to stand for election given the 15-month jail term he received from the Constitutional Court in 2021. Adding to the all-round befuddlement is the fact that, despite his public endorsement of the MKP, Convict Number One has not, as yet, terminated his ANC membership. 

Several of his close allies are also included on the list. They include the sorry mess that is his daughter, Duduzile Zuma-Sambudla and the laughable Des “Weekend Special” van Rooyen, whose December 2015 tenure as finance minister lasted all of three days.

More ominously, as colleague David Bullard has noted, the list also includes Visvin Reddy, who is currently the MKP’s KZN leader and who has threatened civil war should the party be barred from contesting the elections. 

On top of this, there’s a more disturbing threat from Bonginkosi Khanyile, the former #FeesMustFall activist who has been appointed MKP’s national co-ordinator and volunteer-in-chief. 

Khanyile, who was convicted in August 2018 of public violence and who will lead the MKP’s “youth ground forces” in campaigns ahead of the elections, told a crowd outside the IEC building last week:

“If the elections of 2024 do not give Umkhonto weSizwe a two-thirds majority and leave the ANC in power, we are going to close South Africa for good ... We reject the outcome of the IEC if it doesn’t give Umkhonto weSizwe [a two-thirds majority].”

City Press columnist Mondli Makhanya has suggested that this could be “the first election in our democracy where we have a contesting party threatening outright violence if it does not win. It is the first time that the outcome of elections has been questioned months before they are held and before there is even a remote tinge of wrongdoing among those charged with running the poll.”

Makhanya does not think these people are a joke. He raises the bloody events of July 2021 as Msholozi’s supporters, angered that uBaba had been jailed, ran riot in KZN and Gauteng. This rabble, he argues, is able to “exploit poverty and cause havoc” in a country he describes as a “tinderbox”. He adds:

“Compounding matters is that our security agencies have not convinced us that they are ready for a possible repeat of the July 2021 mayhem. The instigators of what President Cyril Ramaphosa called an attempted insurrection are still getting on with their lives and are most likely deep in the ranks of the MKP.”

Those instigators include Zuma-Sambudla who, in her role as the gloating Lady Haw-Haw of Nkandla, celebrated the torching and looting via Twitter, and the afore-mentioned upstart, Bonginkosi Khanyile.

The latter has been charged with incitement to commit public violence and charges of contravention of the Disaster Management Act in relation to the events of July 2021. Khanyile’s trial has, however, been marked by numerous delays, often related to his decisions to change his legal representatives. 

It’s worth noting that Khanyile was described as a “Wits University third year law student” in a March 2023 news report. However, his principal tutor in what we now term the “Stalingrad legal defence” appears to have been the Blesser himself. As Khanyile boasted to reporters following one brief court appearance: “I am smarter than some of the people here.”

In addition to his legal expertise, Khanyile appears to naturally gifted when it comes to talking up trouble. There is an instructive video on X (formerly Twitter), filmed during an interview for a podcast, in which Khanyile babbles on about an uprising of thousands of MKP youth members. It’s going to be very soon, he says, but he won’t be telling us when exactly all this upheaval will take place. The media will not be invited. As he puts it, “The revolution will never be televised.”

It’s tempting, on the one hand, to dismiss this talk as hollow bluster. 

But, on the other … well, he has a violent history. There are people who take him seriously — even as seriously as he takes himself — and, who knows, he could be one of several homegrown Barbecues in the making.