18 Apr 2024

Dave Letele on why he fell out with the Prime Minister

From 30 with Guyon Espiner, 9:10 am on 18 April 2024

Dave Letele’s life has been defined by transformation. From a complicated upbringing to a successful boxing career to tipping the scales at more than 200 kg, he’s been through countless challenges.

Now he spends his days using what he’s learned to help others in need, through his Butterbean Motivation programme. 

He tells Guyon what he thinks of the new Government's crackdown on gangs, whether boot camps really work, and if he’ll ever get into the political ring himself. 

Follow 30 with Guyon Espiner on Apple PodcastsSpotifyiHeart, YouTube or wherever you get your podcasts.

Watch episode 2: Roseanne Liang on her huge new Hollywood project and why she's obsessed with Terminator 2

Watch episode 3: David Seymour on race-based policies he'd like to change, and whether we can really afford tax cuts

Maunga climbing 

“I started my journey getting off the bed and going for a walk at One Tree Hill, massively overweight and extremely depressed, wanting to end my life. But while I was walking these maunga, I wasn't thinking about life. I was just thinking about getting up the hill and how hard it was.” 

“[A few days ago] we were up at Mount Eden, and we had people there from all walks of life. People from LinkedIn, chairmen, CEOs. And then, you had people overcoming addictions. You had former and current gang members. The sun was shining, and it was just a special moment.” 

“My memory of Mount Eden, as a kid, was playing in the playground there, before or after prison visits. I spoke to some of the people there and a lot of their memories are of looking out of the frosted glass from Mount Eden Prison. And then to be there, free and doing something special, it's just showing them that it's possible and that we're all destined for something better. 

Yeah, it was a special moment.” 

Dave Letele in studio with Guyon Espiner.

Dave Letele in studio with Guyon Espiner. Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

Memories of visiting family in prison 

“There were many times when there was my father, or uncles, or family friends that we'd visit in Mount Eden prison. I remember visiting my uncle Bonzo there. And, you know, it was a big thing. We'd get packs of fruit from the dairy, and we'd take them up to the prison. You could take food in, back in those days. And we'd look forward to him bringing out the chocolate. 

But the memory - the good part of the visits - was not necessarily going and visiting, because you get treated like a dog even when you're visiting prison. It was playing on that playground. That awesome flying fox there. Anyone that's visited Mount Eden Prison as a kid, you'd remember that playground because we all went there.” 


First memories of the police 

“I didn't like the police for a long time. But I work alongside the police now. I understand that they're a community group doing good work, just like us. There are some scumbags in there, but that’s just like anywhere. That's life.” 

“As a kid, I guess, when you have bad memories, you block them out. But I remember this one quite vividly. It was Christmas day. It was a late afternoon. We're all in our pajamas and then the police were raiding our house. This was in Hamilton. There were some burglaries that had happened, up in Auckland, and a lot of the stuff was brought back down to our place in Hamilton and wrapped up as Christmas presents. So my first memory of the police was them confiscating all of my presents!” 

“I hated the police from that day on. And you can imagine why. As a kid, you don't understand what's happening. You just see the police taking all your stuff. I've spoken to [Police Minister Andrew] Coster. I said, how can we minimise the trauma on children when these things happen? Because it's not their fault. But if that's our first introduction to the system, no wonder we hate it. No wonder.” 


Thoughts on Corrections 

“I'll never like Corrections. Never. Just because of my experiences of visiting prisons. You get treated like an animal. You're not the criminal, but you get treated, literally, like a dog.” 


Influence of gang life 

“The crazy thing is, my dad came from a good family. So I guess in one way we're lucky that it wasn't steeped in generations of our family. It was really only my father and his younger brother that went down that path. The rest of our family chose a totally different path. But I saw it. I saw a lot and that would come to play its part later on in life, when I went through some tough times. I always say to people, to parents - you need to be careful what your kids see. We think they don't see anything, but they see it all.” 


Dad’s going to prison 

“I don't remember much from that time. All I do remember is my mum coming home, panicking. You know, 99% of the time, in that life, it's the women left to sweep up the pieces. And my poor mum. She came home in a panic and was just packing stuff and cursing my dad. I didn't really understand what was going on. I remember trying to cheer my mum up, because she was upset. And I was only young, so to try and cheer her up, I poured slime in my hair. It just added to the chaos.”  

“My father was worried what would happen if I stayed in New Zealand. He wanted to send me to Australia with his parents, my grandparents. It was actually meant to be me and my younger sister, my late sister, Vicki, that were meant to go over. But my mum ended up kidnapping my sister so she could keep her!” 

Dave Letele in studio with Guyon Espiner.

Dave Letele in studio with Guyon Espiner. Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

Why people join gangs 

“Oh, man, it's like, in some cases, why not? What people need to understand is, if you're living in a deprived area, you've got no money, you’ve got nothing. Your idea of success, like all of ours, is to earn money. It’s having material things and being comfortable. And if the only people in your area with those things are drug dealers and gang members, I don't blame them for wanting to aspire to that. That’s what we have to deal with: poverty. That's why these kids are joining.” 

“There are some kids we work with who wouldn't even think it's possible to have a nice car without being a drug dealer. It wouldn't even enter their mind. I get so frustrated when the people who make it out of the gangs - and not just sports stars, I'm talking business people - don't come back to show these kids it's possible.” 


Government policy on gangs 

“You cannot imprison your way out of it. You can't imprison your way out of poverty, you can't reduce gang numbers by throwing more people in prison, because prison is the biggest breeding ground for gangs. We have to deal with the root issue here.” 

“When you've got kids joining gangs, and being patched at nine years old, throwing someone in prison doesn't solve anything. Getting these kids in the boot camps, taking them out of their situation and throwing them back doesn't change anything. You've got to walk alongside these families long term, support them long term. It’s not popular to instead say, we're going to invest in these families, so that life's better for the grandkids.” 

“My dad became a ward of the state at, I think, age nine. He’d burnt down his school. He was [a ward of the state] for quite a few years. And that's where his life just took a turn down the wrong path.” 

“So, if you've got that, and then you think that throwing them in prison as adults is going to solve anything, it's not. It's such a backwards way of thinking. And it's just to appease this Government’s right-wing voter base. All parties need to get together and say, okay, let's come up with a strategy - a long term strategy - working with community, businesses and government, long term, to turn things around. Because this is a generational issue. It takes a generation to change it. What they're doing is just going to make it worse.” 


Boot camps 

“I like the idea of the boot camp part of it. It's what we do. So long as it's done the way we do it, where it's wrapped around with all the community support, with all that wraparound support, and it's done with love. Not the way that they're going to do it. Putting Oranga Tamariki in charge? That's a disgrace. They can't keep up with the job they're doing now. It's just not going to work.” 

“These kids are used to being treated like shit. So treating them, like, even more shit, treating them harshly, what's that going to do? They're used to it.  But what they're not used to is love. Of course, you've got to train them hard, like we do with our Rangitahi programmes. But we also have to support them. It's not just about getting shouted out and made to climb mountains and getting abused mentally. That doesn't work because they’re used to it.” 

“I've already told them [the Government] that I'd be keen to be a part of it. But the problem with these people down in Wellington, these bureaucrats and politicians, they don't listen. They think they know best; they think they can run everything from Wellington. It doesn't work that way.” 


Fighting obesity 

“I weighed well over 210 kilos. And we've helped people that are close to 300, some close to 400 kilos. The weight is like a byproduct of everything else that's going wrong in your life. So you've got to deal with that. Same thing, you've got to deal with the root issue. Because health is not just boot camps. It's not just exercise. It's everything. You’ve got to bring the family along with you. And that's what we do. That's our model.” 

“Exercise saved my life. That's why I don't exercise just for the physical benefits. I do it for the mental benefits, purely because you feel better after. Sometimes I pay for it because I can't continually just smash myself with exercise. You've got to actually deal with issues. But I always feel better after. I don't drink. My ‘go to the pub’ is training with my mates, with good people around you. You just feel a lot better.” 


Battling depression 

“My life's a lot better than what it was. But I still get down. Even just last night, it was like, the weight of everything is on my shoulders. This new Government's rubbish. We're not going to get any support. I was getting stressed about it, so I went for a walk. Just 1000 steps, but I'm trying to do it in 20 minutes. You feel better after the natural endorphins of exercise running through your body. You feel happier, and you feel a sense of accomplishment, and your brain has a chance to rest. And that's the important part.”  


Giving up drinking 

“I gave up, totally. Only because I wasn't a very good drinker, and my tolerance for idiots goes down to zero. So I just couldn't afford to get into trouble. So yeah, I had to stop.” 

“I have my doubts about anything that's bad for us. I talk from our community perspective. All of these deprived areas are overwhelmed with everything bad for us - alcohol stores, vapes, crap food, gambling, it's all there at your fingertips. They’re just allowed to rape and pillage our communities without doing anything to help. Who's making all the money here? How are these spaces being allowed to open? A liquor store on every corner? It's funny, because you go to Remuera, you go to a fancy area, and it all looks very inviting. And it's very nice. But you head out south, and it's like visiting Mt Eden Prison.” 

“It's really a disgrace, what they've been allowed to do to our communities, to our most vulnerable, and without any care. Instead of sponsoring all these sports teams, they should be putting money back into the community, sponsoring healthy lunches and sponsoring after-school programmes and things like that.” 


Family role models 

“I had a family filled with leaders. I had different role models. Some chose the wrong path. My uncle, he chose the right path. At a really early part of my life, I latched on to my uncle Ula, who ended up the boss of Duty-Free shoppers. I wanted to be a businessman, I wanted to have money. So I studied really hard. But then I was also seeing a lot of stuff from my other uncle and my parents. When times got tough for me, I chose the wrong path. I had both sides of the tracks, I guess, to learn from.” 


Making it in Australia and losing it all 

“I don't talk about it too much, but I had a couple of businesses over in Australia. I thought, man, I've made it. I've broken the cycle. And I was so proud of myself. But I just had no idea how to handle money. Schools in deprived areas do not teach financial literacy because they have no time and resources. And I had no idea, and that totally, totally f****d it all up. And I lost everything, including my family. I just got up to a lot of no good, and that's why I always say be careful what your kids see, because I thought to myself, there's no way I'm going to go back to not being able to give my kids things, it's not happening. And so I dove straight into [the gang] life.” 


Importance of friends and whanau 

“My good friend, David Higgins, I grew up with him, and he brought me back [to New Zealand] and paid for me in business class, because I couldn't fit in economy. He just worried about me. He would always ask, never wanting to leave me alone, and was always worried that I'd do something to myself. He helped me with no expectations of anything in return. Just to help a brother.” 

“That's what we do now, paying it forward on a mass scale. But what we understand is not everyone has good friends and family that can help. If you're down in the dumps and you make a bad decision, or if life gets tough and you lose your job, or whatever it is, if you don't have good friends and family, what are you going to do? You're stuck. That's when life becomes unbearable. So that's what we try to do in BBM, be good friends and family for others. If they want help, we're here.” 

“I always say to people, when you're checking in with friends and family, don't just ask how they are once. Keep asking because you don't know what's going on behind the smile.” 

Dave Letele in studio with Guyon Espiner.

Dave Letele in studio with Guyon Espiner. Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

Political allegiances  

“We support whoever is going to support us. I've got friends that are hardcore Labour, and I've got friends on the right. But they just believe in the work. Anything else doesn’t really matter. They support the work that I'm doing. That's it.” 

“Unfortunately, all these politicians are the same around election time. They say, ‘we're going to do this and do that for you,’ and then nothing ever happens. But with my good friend, [bar owner] Leo [Malloy], every time I post a photo of him, I get hassled. ‘Why are you friends with him?’ I swear, it doesn't matter. For me, it doesn't matter who you are, what you believe in politically, it's how you are as a person. Are you helping others?” 

"What we do, in BBM, it actually aligns more to the right in terms of the whole hand-up stuff. Invest to give these people a hand-up, rather than handouts. That's everything we do at BBM. But you've got to help them as well. You've got to say, ‘okay, let's sort your issues, let's give you food. And then we're going to focus on getting you out of this situation.’” 


Being ghosted by Christopher Luxon 

“I thought we were friends! [Christopher Luxon] supported us when our food bank got burgled. He'd come and do media stand ups at our food bank, and I'd go to National Party fundraisers. My Labour friends would go, ‘what are you doing?’ Well, I've got to explore options. The problem with Chris is that I signed that letter to call out racism. But what's the problem? You should call out racism! Then he was on the news, so I texted him later and said, ‘Good work.’ And his reply was, ‘why did you sign the letter?’ So I said, ‘let's just catch up and go over it in person.’ But it hasn't worked out that way.” 


Will you go into politics yourself? 

“I don't know man.  I really go over it a lot. I have so many people saying, ‘oh, it'll change you, don't do it.’ And I thought, this is why we end up with the politicians we have now. If every good person that has a community following says, ‘I'm going to join politics,’ and everyone tells them not to, and they don't, then that's why we don't have any good politicians. I think at some stage it's inevitable. More than likely [Te Pati Māori] only because they'd be the party to let me be me.” 


Where to get help:

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Youthline: 0800 376 633 (24/7) or free text 234 (8am-12am), or email talk@youthline.co.nz

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