Born in Heidedal in the Free State province of South Africa, Gayton McKenzie believed he was destined for crime. Honest men like his father had nothing to show for being law abiding. On the other hand, men like his childhood neighbour Fire – a gangster, had everything young Gayton wanted: money and respect.
A young gun
Gayton committed his first crime at 13. By the time he was 18 years old, he had been a house breaker, car hi-jacker, and a leader in two gangs he formed. Armed robbery sent him to jail at age 20. “Being in jail was like earning a medal. It was like collecting an award for being a criminal.” He became a gang leader; running drug and gambling scams and paying off wardens to turn a blind eye to the havoc Gayton was wreaking.
Looking at the man in the mirror
Gayton had no intention to turn his back on crime. If anything, he was determined to use the medals he earned by being a notorious gang leader in jail to take his criminal life into higher gear. Then, one night, he saw an underaged prisoner being gang-raped. Like other men around him, Gayton did nothing. The next morning, as the boy lay in a pool of blood, Gayton was himself as he really was: a criminal. So what if he didn’t rape the boy? He was no better or worse than the men who “killed me”, as the boy whimpered. Gayton could no longer stand to look at the man in the mirror. He made devastating decisions.
Horrible as his actions were, he also knew that he had a choice.That choice was redemption. Along with three friends, Gayton secretly filmed one of the biggest prison exposé in the world, revealing wardens supplying drugs, selling underaged prisoners to old inmates, and even providing a prisoner with a loaded gun to use in an escape.When he left prison in 2003, he was “resolute that I’d never see the inside of a jail cell again.” With just his story to tell and sell, he worked his way up from being an ex-convict to being a businessman, mine owner, investor and best selling author of three books. But it’s being an international speaker that he is most proud of. “Speaking and sharing my experiences always reminds me that I have kept the biggest vow I have ever made to myself: I will never see the inside of a jail cell again. Not only would I turn my back on crime, I would also use my influence and ambition to benefit myself, my community and the world.” Today, Gayton speaks to school children, prisoners and ex-prisoners, as well as captains of industry in South Africa and around the world. His accolades include being voted the best motivational speaker in South Africa for three consecutive years.
Gayton is not a feel good story. He has seen life at its worst and very best; fallen from dazzling heights and re-built himself into the man that he is today. The common thread that binds his life’s experiences and work is how he tells his truth: in his voice. He is authentic. He resonates with his different audiences because there are fragments of ourselves in his life story. We have all at some stage been lost, hopeless and hit rock bottom. Gayton didn’t just rise above his circumstances. He has scaled and conquered the greatest peaks of life.
The man whose earliest memory of childhood is seeing someone being murdered has risen from a delinquent and criminal to being voted the best motivational speaker in South Africa for three consecutive years, a business success and an inspiration.