Billowing columns of smoke are not always an auspicious sight in a township, especially on June 16. It could be tyres going up in flames to mark a service delivery protest, or it might be a government building going up in smoke.
But when we went to Midway, Soweto, it was to see smoke escaping into the atmosphere not from protest but from the engines and exhausts of old-model BMWs. The occasion was the latest in the Soweto Drift series, a gathering of motorcar-spinning enthusiasts held in a vacant township lot. To be specific, the event is held in an empty yard overgrown with weeds and grass, bordered by a brick-and-mortar wall perhaps a metre high. The decrepit site of about 3 000m2 boasts little apart from sand mounds, a rusting steel structure and the skeleton of a warehouse-like edifice.
The arena itself, right in the centre, is where pneumatic wheels heave and squeak. The ring is shielded by tyres piled high to prevent the cars from crashing into spectators.
The Mail & Guardian team got there at about 3pm to a discouraging scene. A towtruck was dragging a greyish BMW whose heart, or some other vital organ, had given up.
It turned out, however, that it was not a life-threatening illness because, soon enough, the car was resuscitated and roared into the lot exhaling smoke.
Also arriving at the lot were a variety of cars, including the latest BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes. But the champion of the arena, easily, was a Volvo 1966 with fat mag wheels that stood serenely staring at the mayhem and the upstart Beamers.
Talking to the spinners is akin to conversing with a footballer who has scored a bicycle kick from an improbable angle. You want him to share the source of the testosterone, adrenaline and petroleum-fuelled stunts, yet most will not go beyond the anodyne.
One of the first into the ring was Ashley Dawadi in an old BMW 5 Series. I was under the impression that the 3 Series was the king of the spin, but Dawadi was quick to dispel this notion. “I have been spinning this madala [old man] for all these years,” said Dawadi.
But surely the 3 Series is more suited to the task? “No, it is not difficult. If you can spin, you will spin any car.” We asked him to explain his preference. “The engines of the 5 Series are strong. This model is a 2.8-litre engine made in 1986. Even though the 325 is nice to drive, the engine is weak.”
Gangsters and outlaws
Dawadi (35), who had brought his toddler son along to the “car-nival”, admitted that, despite being a veteran spinner of 15 years, he sometimes got nervous. Although his day job is in printing, he has “always loved cars” and over the years has owned Golfs and other makes of cars. Both his sons adore cars too, so it is safe to say that they will follow in their father’s footsteps.
His friend, Sheldon Booysens (25), took a spin in the Beemer. The quintessential stuntman — complete with nonchalant hand gestures and studied indifference — had a cockiness you sometimes find in outrageously talented footballers.
Practised away from the sanitised tracks of Kyalami on vacant plots of land and in narrow streets, the carnival has a genealogy that originates with gangsters and outlaws. The M&G spoke to a veteran spinner, known simply as “the king of stunts”.
The king was the first to jump out of a car while spinning it. “This thing started way back in the 1980s,” he said. “We used to spin cars at the funerals of our friends who passed on. I will not deny that it all started out with gangsterism and hijacking, you know.”
At the funerals of gangsters, the departed’s co-conspirators and disciples would give him a skidding send-off. “It is like this: When a football player dies, the other players go to the funeral in football kits, correct? Well, that is what we’re doing too. When someone in the gang died, we would go out, steal a car and spin it at the funeral. Remember, though, our elders used to do this too; we took after them.”
The king said the sport was becoming increasingly sanitised and recalled the moment when football bent over for the corporates, which came bearing billions in hard cash.
Spinning has attracted the likes of energy-drink giant Red Bull and Speed and Sound, a car and audio magazine. At the event, most of the cars were decorated with advertising for this or that panel beater and other assorted vehicle services. “We did not want the perception people had about spinning to continue, so we changed things and we are happy that today people do not have to steal cars to spin. It has become a loved sport among youngsters — youngsters who we teach to buy their own cars and not to steal,” he said.
Borderline between art and life
Spinning’s associations with bandits might explain why the spectacle was illegal for years.
It only got recognition as a uniquely South African motor pastime in 2010 and still remains outside the hallowed temples occupied by the likes of Formula 1, Le Mans — the world’s oldest endurance motor race — and the motorcycle MotoGP.
Spinning could be said to belong, to use Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin’s words, “to the borderline between art and life. In reality, it is life itself, but shaped according to a certain pattern of play.”
It is difficult not to miss the precariousness of the black driver as the car heaves and sputters, skidding and spinning; it is a danger shared by those watching. It is easy to make comparisons with the general danger that attends black lives in the township or in taxis driven by people who, in a former life, might have been inept spinners.
The carnival seems to underscore the sentiment: it is dangerous out there, but it can also be fun. Over the years, drivers and spectators have been hurt, sometimes even killed.
“It is my hobby; it will be my hobby until I die,” Booysens said. Perhaps it is not a surprise that Booysens’s choice of words twin fun and death.
He grew up in a neighbourhood in which the older boys were spinners and never paused to consider any other pastime. “I have never damaged my car. Did you not see me just now?” he asked, triumphantly. He complained that the arena was rather too big and took away the thrill and challenge one encounters at a small T-junction. “Everyone can spin here, but on a small street you can see the one who can really spin,” he said. “It is important to have judgment and on the T- junction you have to learn to drive carefully so that you do not damage your wheels.”
Soweto Drift, an initiative by filmmaker Pule Motloung, is just one of many events that attract young spinners. Motloung is making a movie about spinning, Soweto Drift, a version of which was screened at a cultural festival in Johannesburg last month. Motloung said: “Having this event on Youth Day carries a lot of meaning. Back in 1976, the youth used to burn tyres as a show of their struggles against apartheid. Today I believe that the youth are still struggling, albeit with different things, but they are still struggling. They burn tyres today in a different way.”
The fabled spinning maestro, who goes by the name of Wannie, has started Spin City, a franchised event that hosts spinning shows in different towns across South Africa. Barred from Soweto Drift by Motloung because of sponsorship rivalries, Wannie admits that spinning is now about the money. That is not so hard to believe; after all, 85% of the spinners are unemployed. Indeed, half of the spinners interviewed said they did not have jobs. Some are involved in cars in one way or another as drivers, sellers or mechanics.
Spinners, numbering from seven to 50, aggregate into crews that are strewn across the country. It seems location determines which crew you join, hence the Southside Crew (Turforntein, Ormonde, Ennerdale), Ride2slide from the west of Johannesburg, and many others.
Spinning is a movement, a way of life, which brings like-minded daredevils together. It was nourished by a sense of exclusion, fostered by apartheid. Wannie said spinning was about enriching the lives of young black people who could not take up white sports. People who are, in their own right, artists and entertainers.
Ricardo Carls, known in spinning circles as “Mr Carls”, is worried that the movement cannot continue in his own family because he has three daughters. “I am trying for a son,” the 35-year-old said, laughing. “When you get the crowd smiling, when the crowd reacts, it feels good. “I like entertaining the crowd.”
The spinning continued into the chilly night and smoke billowed from the testosterone, the abused engines and the tyres. The crowd was enraptured, loving every guttural cough of the engine, cheering at every spin, well, well into the night.
To view the slideshow go to mg.co.za/sowetodrift