Hopping a Train - Surf Week


By Jess Goulart

Photo courtesy of Micah MacAllen.

In 2006 filmmaker Sara Blecher set out to document a growing trend in the youth of Soweto, South Africa, called train surfing. Exhilarating, beautiful, and deadly, teenagers hang from the side and bottom of trains, or climb on top, and perform almost ritualized dance-like movements.

After covering the story for a cursory news piece, Blecher became interested in taking a closer look at not only the how of train surfing, but the why. What underlying cause is there for young people to risk their lives in this way? To find an answer, she selected three of the most notorious surfers and equipped them with video cameras.

The young men, called Bitch Nigga, Lefa, and Mzembe, were taught to film both their surfing stunts and their daily lives. Blecher amalgamated the footage with some of her own to create her documentary Surfing Soweto, released in 2010, and discovered the reason behind train surfing is both complex and deeply rooted in South Africa’s history and culture.

“If you ask them why they train surf, they can’t articulate a reason,” Blecher tells BTR. “They say ‘the devil makes me do it.’ I think they do it because it’s the one time where they feel like they can matter in their lives. The experience of death being so close, and them having the power to defy it, makes them feel like they are in control. There’s nowhere else in their lives where they can feel that.”

Train surfing, known locally as staff riding, first came to South Africa in the 1950s. Shortly thereafter, electric trains were installed and the practice became even more dangerous. There’s now 3,000 volts of electricity running through each cable; just one touch is fatal. In 2006, death rates from surfing reached such high proportions that special security guards were employed and youth awareness programs put in place. As a result, surfing drastically declined in Soweto, but Blecher says these stats are misleading.

“Train surfing goes through phases and it moves to different places throughout the country. Now, there’s not a lot of train surfing in Soweto, but there is a lot of train surfing in a place called the East Strand, near Johannesburg. It doesn’t stop. Train surfers never live past 21, so there’s a new crop of guys that pop up once the others die. And one guy doing it well seems to inspire others to do it, too.”

Dr. June Barn-Hutchison, a South African Academic, told the BBC in an interview with Blecher that the youth of South Africa faces challenges that were unforeseen by their parents, who were hopeful for a more stable country when the apartheid lifted and Nelson Mandela came to power in 1994. These kids, known collectively as the “Born Frees,” grew up believing life would be easier with a democratic system. But poverty, famine, and violence are still rampant while education is still difficult to attain, and that is perhaps why they surf.

According to the Congress of South African Trade Unions, more than half of South Africa’s 18- to 25-year-olds are unemployed. The country has one of the five highest income discrepancies in the world, and one of the highest violent crime rates.

Artist Krisanne Johnson traveled across South Africa photographing the lives of the Born Frees for a series published in The New Yorker. Some photos were accompanied by oral testimonials from the depicted subjects and explored their often-chilling realities.

Thabsile Brightness Sishi, one 24-year-old photographed by Johnson, explained in the series that she questions whether this is really the South Africa for which her parents voted, and feels it is her duty to her children to continue fighting for a safe country of which they can at last be proud.

Another of Johnson’s photographs portrays the abysmal living conditions for 15-year-old Minorah Bey, who lives in a housing project in one of Cape Town’s most notoriously dangerous areas. Bey said gunshots and gang violence are common, and she sees young children selling their bodies on street corners for “tik” (meth) every day.

Bitch Nigga, Lefa, and Mzembe paint a similar picture. It’s clear that South Africa’s oppressive history hurled millions of families into fatherless cycles, including their own. Without appropriate role models, the young men must create their own rites of passage into adulthood–like defying death on a train.

Beyond train surfing, Born Frees have developed other means of achieving agency in their lives. A new subculture called Izikhothane is emerging in the Soweto city center. The word is street slang referring to groups of teenagers who “battle” each other with dance, insults, and the destruction of expensive items like clothes, alcohol, and even money.

Prior to an Izikhothane party, kids purchase these items so they can later burn them publicly, some saving for months. The more items a person destroys, the more power they have. The winners are celebrities, complete with autograph signing and groupies.

When asked about the similarities in these activities, Blecher says, “They are both for kids who have nothing else in their lives. But train surfing, if you watch it, is beautiful. It’s very athletic and extraordinary, like ballet or art. And I don’t think there’s anything beautiful about burning expensive clothing or pouring out bottles of custard. I think the two are very different.”