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Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Gangster sport goes mainstream in South Africa

The white BMW appears to float across the asphalt as it does a 360-degree turn, its steel ballet incongruous with the acrid smell of smoking tyres and the lunatic snarl of the engine.

The car skids perilously close to the crowd of spectators clustered behind the wall of old tyres encircling the arena.

But these fans of "spinning" - an illicit urban motor sport practised on the streets of South Africa's townships - greet what looks like a near-death experience with wild applause.

"Check out the distance! Brother, that was inch-perfect!" says an enraptured spectator after the driver, 25-year-old Sunesh Pursad, leaves the circle of pavement known as the "dance floor".

Pursad is part of a group of spinners who are trying to clean up the sport's image, taking a pastime associated with violent young men to a larger audience.

There is a stigma in South Africa attached to spinning, which was born on the streets of Soweto, the township where Johannesburg's white citizens warehoused their black labour force during apartheid.

An element of danger pervades the sport, which is essentially a collection of car tricks that the owner's manual tells you never to try, with names like "the burnout", "the snake" and "the drift".

The most revered is the "get-out stunt", where the driver sets the car spinning in circles, then gets out, walks around, busts a few dance moves - all while the empty vehicle keeps whirling - before jumping back inside.

Spinners say these performances started at the funerals of "tsotsis", or gangsters, whose fellow gang members would spin cars as a kind of memorial service.

There were a lot of funerals for young men in Soweto in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The township was a violent place, racked by bloody fighting as the death throes of white-minority rule in South Africa played themselves out on the streets of black neighbourhoods.

Car ownership was extremely rare in Soweto under apartheid. Spinners say when a gangster died, fellow gang members would steal cars and spin them at the funeral, then set them alight.

"If a gangster used to steal cars, that's how he was going to be celebrated. All your friends would come and spin. That was the culture," says Pule Motloung, a spinner and filmmaker from Soweto who has made a documentary on spinning, "Love 4 the Box Shape", and is finishing a feature film.

Recent high-profile news stories have increased public concern over a link between urban car culture and criminal activity.

Last year prominent hip-hop star Molemo Maarohanye - better known as "Jub-Jub", which means "Marshmallow" - was allegedly drag-racing with a friend in Soweto when one of their Mini-Coopers crashed into a group of school children.

Four children died and two others suffered severe injuries, including brain damage. The men are on trial for murder and driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol.

Another alleged drag-racing accident in Pretoria killed three people in April.

Motloung and other spinners are fighting to distance their sport from these illegal drag races and to create a more mainstream space for it.

Last year they successfully applied to Motor Sport South Africa, the governing body for auto sports, to sanction spinning as a code. They have since been organising licensed spinning events and sponsored competitions with prizes of up to 60,000 rand ($8,700, 6,100 euros).

"We are trying to create a new image," says Motloung, 28.

"You can be ambassadors for your community by just taking this thing and revamping it and making it a positive thing."

Crowd-pleaser Pursad says the sport has been good for young men who might otherwise have been drawn to gangs.

"The important part about it is that it's good clean fun," he says.

He thinks the sanctioning of the sport has helped curb violence in the townships.

Rather than fight in the streets, he says, "We fight it out on the dance floor."



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