When I was growing up on the white suburban streets of 1980's apartheid Johannesburg there was no such thing as black skateboarders. While we rode our lame, mass produced fish-shaped boards, that our pops purchased off the shelves from the Game hyperstore, integration was a far-off dream. The 1994 election was an impossibility, transition from the brutal, racist regime into a representative democracy in which everyone was equal before the state, regardless of the colour of their skin was as far fetched as a fairy tale, a myth, like Jack and the Beanstalk or the tokoloshe1. The mid 80s craze of day-glo skateboard culture, skateboarding's first mainstream wave, that we, the privileged white few, in the suburbs were so quick to cotton onto, slipped by South Africa's black communities entirely.
10 years after South Africa's miraculous transformation from racist, global pariah to Nelson Mandela, peace and relative prosperity. Economic empowerment and a rising black middle class have been the concrete manifestations of change. There are now far more top-end black consumers in the South African economy than white, and with this upward mobility comes large scale urbanisation, globalisation, Hollywood, tar roads, curbs, railings and inevitably more kids with skateboards. Urban schools are now completely integrated and the next generation are generally, colourblind, tolerant of each other's divergent cultures and manifestly consumerist. English, Afrikaans, Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho, Pedi and Tswana seem to be united by their desire for Fubu, Diesel, Nike and Mickey Ds. Consuming hours of MTV, Craig David and Sum 41. It is now common, when driving through Johannesburg to see a bunch of integrated teens, hanging on a quiet street corner, fastidiously perfecting their ollies, grinds and kick-flips.Downtown Jozi
It is entirely apt that I meet a young crew of new South African skaters in downtown Johannesburg, skating the railings, stairs and sidewalks outside the Market Theatre. In its day the Market Theatre was the home of left wing, anti-apartheid struggle culture. Shows were closed down by the police on a regular basis. People detained, beaten and intimidated. The area's bars were always filled with journalists, musicians, actors, activists and agitators. Nowadays, after an immediate post-apartheid slump the Market Theatre is back on the mend, with truckloads of EU money being pumped into the Newtown Cultural Precinct via the newly constructed Nelson Mandela Bridge. Skating in Newtown is South Africa's equivalent of London's Southbank. Leslie Mampe, Lucky Ngubane and Mfundo Mahlangu, all aged between 18 and 19 are part of a larger crew of skateboarders who seem completely at ease with, or perhaps oblivious to, South Africa's violently racialised past. All they really want to do is skate, pull big moves, land them and then maybe drink some beer on the weekends at a house party with some fine looking women around. Standard young man behaviour.
'Everything is tight.' Says Leslie. 'I've been skating since I was 13. Got into it through my friends.'
Although he has been to lots of different schools, he adamantly denies that he's a rebel. 'It's just that my folks move around a lot.'
'Skating means everything. It's the best thing ever. It's challenging and it's rad and it's also like an expression.'
Have white skateboarders ever given you any shit? I ask, stuck in the racial injustice groove of my upbringing. Like old vinyl that doesn't seem to fit the new needles they're making these days.
'No, it just amps me up even more. It's not about race, it's about who's got the skills.' Kids like Leslie make me happy to have been part of our revolution. To witness the rising of a meritocracy.
'I want to take it far,' he says. 'I want to be a pro.'
Who is your skate hero? I ask.
'Eric Kosten. He's like the Ronaldo of skateboarding. And Paul Rodriguez 'cos he's my age and he's just as tight as Eric Kosten.'
'Just skating and learning new stuff every day.'
'Stitches and broken ankle. A few bruises and a few cuts. All part of the package.'
Who's the best in your crew?
'Lucky, Lucky's got the mad skills.'
Shit check that out, that kid nearly landed in the bin.
Lucky Ngubane has got the mad skills. This is true, in any street skateboarding pack, there's always one dude pulling the maniac shit. Pushing the envelope that the others are to follow. Are you Lucky? I ask.
'Sometimes I'm lucky, sometimes I've got bad luck.' He answers like a young buddha.
What's the worst injuries you've sustained skateboarding?
'Just sprained my ankles.'
You're lucky man! Skateboarding is a culture of pain. How long you been boarding?
Are you still at school?
'No, I stopped because I didn't have enough cash. So now I'm working.'
What do you work as.
'I work for my sponsor, Skates for Africa.'
Is skateboarding your life?
'No it's not my life, I can skate, I don't want to stop skating, but I can't just depend on skateboarding.'
You got skills.
'Ja, I'm trying, I want to have skills. Proper skills.'
Lucky knows about the hardships of living in Africa, how poverty swallows people whole, and he doesn't want to have to rely on a plank with four wheels to feed himself.
What do you dig about skateboarding? I ask.
'The culture, just you and your board, rolling around, having fun. You feel free when you skate, no one tells you what to do, you just do whatever.'
Do you get harassed by the police?
'All the time. Every spot that we hit, we just get busted. They always chase us away. They say that we are messing up their curbs and shit.'
How far do you want to take it?
'I don't want to stop. I wouldn't mind going pro. But it's not my main priority.'
What do your parents think.
'Before, they didn't like it. They thought it was just for kids only. Until I got sponsored. Now they enjoy my skating because they see me in magazines and I'm making some money.'Mfundo Mahlangu, just 17 and all these scars.
'This one was a car accident and this one was from a skateboard.' He says pointing to his head and then his lip.
'Been doing it for 5 years. I quit all other sports at school 'cos I just wanted to skate.'
How far do you want to take it.
'As far as I can get. Hopefully become pro one day. But if I don't make it, I've got a whole lot of shoe designs and logos and stuff and so maybe I'll start my own company. You have to stay in it. Have to maintain. As long as the doctors say I can skate, I will.'
Do you ever run into any conflict?
'Not really from white people in a racist kind of way, but more from black people who are walking by and look at me kind of strangely – like what are you doing. Because skateboarding is not accepted yet. It's not soccer.
'But Inevitably you prove yourself on your board. It's about merit.'
And what about the posers? I ask.
'Posers! They just want to wear the shoes. Like being seen with all the best stuff. Like, oh I got this Jamie Thomas board and I'm the man, but it's got no scratches underneath or anything.'
When are we going to see our first SA pro.
'Well, hmmm, maybe me someday...'
Skateboarding in South Africa is becoming big business. There are a handful of young brands, local skate equipment producers and shops in every major mall. The scene has already spawned two magazines, Blunt and Session who battle bi-monthly for the heart, soul and loyalty of the South African skateboarding public. Together they move around 30 000 magazines. Which serves to scratch the surface of how many skaters live and ride in South Africa.Durban Poison
Durban is nowhere as affluent as Johannesburg, yet there is still a fair amount of upward movement between the townships and the suburbs. Black kids who ten years ago would have been born in the ghetto, are living middle class existences, attending model C2 schools and integrating nicely with the previously advantaged classes, and doing middle class Durban things like surfing and skateboarding. Enter Gavin Ndlela, 21, surfer, skateboarder and flo-rider extraordinaire. He started surfing about six years ago when there was a lot more discrimination in the water, something which I am glad to report has lessened with the political overhaul and the overall change in attitude that has accompanied the infiltration of more black people into boardriding. Gavin now works at the Wave House in Durban. A huge consumer-orientated altar to the gods of sliding. The Wave House adjoins a vast shopping complex known as the Gateway Theatre of Shopping. Surrounded by a dense cluster of surf and skate shops, designed to suck money straight out of your pockets, the Wave House hosts a huge skatepark designed by Tony Hawk, housing vert ramps, bowls and a ridiculous perpetual motion thing called the snakebowl, next to the main attraction – the flo-rider. A hugely complicated, double-barreling standing wave that can knock your teeth out, dislocate your hips and send you flailing over the back with ease. Add to this a huge stage for live gigs, a restaurant, bar and pool tables and you have Durban's hottest venue mall- attraction.
Dallas Oberholzer, perhaps South Africa's most complete skater, also works at the Wave House, overseeing the skating aspects, keeping it real and every now and then letting it fly on the vert ramp. Dallas can do it all, he's maniacally accomplished in street and vert and has consistently been on the winners podium of the Red Bull Downhill Extreme skateboard race in Cape Town. As far as skateboarding goes, he is the guru. Manifestly sub-culture, Dallas has been using the gig at the Wave House to establish and run his own skate camp. A few years ago he started taking keen young Durban skaters to a remote village in the Valley of a Thousand Hills (an intensely rural area outside of Durban, that white people rarely visit, if ever). Here he set up and runs Indigo Skate Camp, where he trains skateboarders in the arts of street, vert, downhill and a bit of yoga thrown in on the side. Evidently, in such a rural area, with the influx of affluent young hipsters like a Durban skateboard posse, the Indigo Skate Camp caught the attention and imagination of the local kids. Dallas started to organise some extra boards and started including the local kids in the camp. What exists now is a rural Zulu community so charged up on skateboarding that when we go to visit them, they meet us on the road and race us down an insanely steep hill, on some very shaky looking lollipop boards. Complete balls to the wall skate lunacy in Zulu land. The only place these kids can skate is the road, the passage between the classrooms at the local school and the patio of the resort that houses the Indigo Skate Camp. Everything else is sand, dirt and bush.
Dallas' plans are far reaching, he wants to establish Durban's first downhill skateboarding race on the lunatic hill, winding down into the valley where the skate camp is. His intention is to get traditionally white, city dwellers out of their comfort zones and interacting with the rural Zulu community that they have been neglecting for years. By bringing city kids here, he is almost leapfrogging South Africa's process of integration by a generation. The skate kids who attend the camps learn that the rural communities in the Valley of a Thousand Hills, on the outskirts of Durban are made up of people just like them, albeit poorer and living within a traditional Zulu cultural context. They get a chance to put aside the racialised paranoia and overblown horror stories that keep these two economically divided communities apart. Most importantly they get to experience the place, the people and the ubuntu3 for themselves and can formulate their own opinions.
As for the local kids, they are just incredibly stoked to have this kind of interaction. Everyone wants to be apart of it. One kid has only got one roller blade, but he manages to join in the fun and is perhaps in the process of inventing his own hybrid movement, tricks et al. Another kid has been practicing so hard on his buddy's skateboard that the tops of his only pair of shoes are completely ripped off, with his toes sticking out.
Madala4 Dallas, as they call him, has some impressive ideas for furthering the skate camp. The village is on the banks of a slow moving river, his intention is to throw some concrete and turn some of the natural rock contours of the riverbed into an organic skate park. In this sense, literally, skating rocks! After putting the kids through their paces, having an impromptu kickflip session on the grassy bank of the river, Dallas calls everyone up to the local school where he sets up a ramp made from an old door in one of the run down classrooms. It's a steep drop down the door and then a slide or a sharp turn around a pillar. Like an accident waiting to happen. But the kids are just way too amped to give a shit, and charge down the ramp without care for personal safety or the crowd that has gathered on the edge of the classroom.
At sunset we make our way back to Durban while the locals head up to the chief's kraal5 for a feast in honour of their ancestors. The feast is a big one, with two cows being slaughtered and plenty of nqomboti6. In fact one of the skaters has blood smeared all over his shirt, having bunked in the middle of his slaughter duties to come and skate with Madala Dallas and the crew.The Dlamini Pool
Back in Durban and hanging around the sterile, sanitised skate mecca of the Wave House, Dallas suggests that we take a drive to the nearby suburb of Umhlanga to check out what's happening at the Dlamini bowl. Mr Dlamini is a very successful businessman and his home represents everything that is good about South Africa's transition. Along with his several wives and numerous offspring, Mr Dlamini has moved to Durban's posh suburb of La Lucia without shedding an ounce of his Zulu cultural heritage. In Africa polygamy is completely acceptable as long as you can afford to support the amount of wives you desire. Skating has gripped the Dlamini kids like an epidemic and of the 12 or so offspring, 7 of them skate. It was not long before they syphoned out their pool and started skating it. It's a sick set up when we arrive with Khulu and Kosi Dlamini, brothers both aged 13 from different Mrs Dlaminis, skating like Tony Alva, going over the light around the pool's bowl and even doing the occasional grind and ollie-kick flips over the stairs and into the pool. I am visibly impressed to learn that they have only been skating for about a year. On the one side of the pool is the makeshift metal leg of a scaffolding and about 4 meters above it is a construction worker trying to lay bricks and concrete to fix up the pool house for Mr Dlamini's eldest son. While Khulu, Kosi and the youngster 10 year old Dlamini Dlamini, otherwise known as Double D, all manage to navigate around the scaffolding and still go insanely high around the pool, Dallas keeps sliding out and knocking the leg, shaking the scaffolding and causing the worker to curse and swear down at us, while looking nervous. Eventually Dallas calls it quits as Mr Dlamini arrives to inspect the work.
'I'm going to fill this pool with water soon, so enjoy it while you can, boys.' He says with a smile.
Khulu, Kosi and Double D, treat their dad reverentially. I ask him what he thinks about skating.
'These damn skateboards!' he shakes his head. 'They chew up their shoes so quickly, I can't afford to buy them new ones.' This I find hard to believe in the face of all the mercs, and chryslers parked in their driveway. But then again with several wives and 12 kids... maybe he's got a point. I suggest he get them traditional Zulu sandals called mpatatas which are made of old car tyres and seem to last forever. He just laughs.
'Have fun boys.' And he leaves.
'We'll never let him fill the pool.' Says Khulu adamantly.
'It's going to stay like this.' Agrees Kosi.
On our way out Dallas suggests it might be a good thing for Mr Dlamini to fill the pool. 'Pretty much everything has already been done in that pool. It has seen some completely sick sessions. And besides I don't think anybody can stop Mr Dlamini from filling the pool. Did you see how respectfully his kids treat him?'EsCape Town
Back in Cape Town where things are slow. Due to the geographic location of the place, and the fact that in many ways the Western Cape was the seat of the apartheid government, there is very little integration going on. Cape Town's community is split three ways, and this was the evil genius of the apartheid system. At the bottom of the social strata you have mainly Xhosa immigrants living in the shanty towns of Khayelitsha, Nyanga, Gugulethu and Philippi, above them the apartheid government insinuated a coloured middle class, a mish mash community made up of Cape Malays, half-castes, Hottentots and others. The differentiating factor being that they were not as dark as the Xhosas. And on top of the pile, sitting pretty in the suburbs and geographically isolated up against the mountains are the rich, white aristocracy. Apartheid fanned racial hatred between coloureds and blacks, blacks and whites and whites and coloureds. It's completely absurd, but the effects of 400 years of discriminatory laws can still be felt in Cape Town. Mainly because in Durban and Johannesburg economic growth and prosperity have helped to create a vibrant black middle class. In Cape Town, the rise of tourism and the film industry has only really served to further enrich the haves, leaving the nots out of the economic loop, unemployed and restless in the townships. That's why when you go to a skate park like the Adrenalin Zone at the new Canal Walk shopping complex, what you will find is a crowd of white pubescants, skating, smoking and acting badly with a smattering of young coloured skaters and nary a black face in the place. Except serving behind the counter of the sweet kiosk, or working in the kitchens of the nearby restaurants.While integration still leaves a lot to be desired in Cape Town's fledgling street skating scene, it has already been achieved to some degree in Cape Town's bigger and much better financed downhill skateboarding scene. Every year Red Bull hosts an insane, international skateboard race, down a break neck hill from Table Mountain down to the beach. It's sheer flesh scraping luncacy. And from the very first Downhill Extreme there has been a steadily increasing number of black entrants in the event. Despite their inferior equipment (some of them attempt the hill on lollipops) they are willing to risk injury for the glory of standing on the podium. What this event proves, along with the overall amp and excitement around skating in Durban and Johannesburg is that skateboarding is coming to Africa in a big way. As South Africa lurches its way forward into a brave new global future as Africa's entry point, economic and social integration is not just a necessity but a foregone conclusion. It will eventually sweep the sandy streets of Khayelitsha into asphalt with curbs. People will get running water and electricity and access to the economy. Then parents will eventually be able to buy their kids skateboards. Because even if they don't know it now, that's what they will want.
1 The tokoloshe is a type of african goblin who corrupts little children and gives people bad dreams and worse.
2 Integrated government funded schools in urban areas, with a high standard of education.
3 Fellowship in Zulu. Traditional life in Africa is generally typified by this principle of generosity, kindness and hospitality.
4 Madala is a respectful Zulu term reserved for elderly men.
5 Homestead of circular huts
6 Traditional African beer.