Over weekends in the Soweto area of Johannesburg, crowds flock to makeshift pitches in vacant lots to watch dapper young men raise massive clouds of smoke, quickly run down the tread on their wheels, and hang out the sides of their BMW 325is.Watch the video above, made in collaboration with Sure Motionsense, and you'll see how dangerous it looks. These guys cling on by the crook of their arms, feet skidding along the dust, faces shining through the clouds of smoke, while the car they're attached to screams itself hoarse, until it breaks stance and the man re-enters through the window to the cheers of those watching from behind piles of old tires.Soweto was the only place this kind of motorsport could have started. It's the most famous township in South Africa, home to 850,000 people divided into around 30 residential areas. The uprisings and resulting massacre of 1976 here are scorched into living South African memory. It has a life and mentality all of its own, a fuck-you-we-do-what-we-like attitude born of a necessity that can only come from oppression.
In the 80s, a thriving gangster culture gave rise to spinning at funerals, where it became ritual to steal a car and spin it around in honor of the fallen. Then, during the early 90s, when the country looked almost certainly doomed to racial civil war, some twentysomething Sowetans got together and practiced outside the criminal world. They didn't know what they were doing exactly (stunts, drag racing, whatever), but it all centered on the BMW 325i—the so-called box shape, or gusheshe—and being the best. It grew from there, and these days it's on the brink of being a certified official motorsport, having already advanced to a profitable industry and network of promoters, spinners, and crowds.
Jeff James was one of the guys who started it all, back in the 90s. He's 42 now, with a wife and kids, and is considered one of the founding fathers, but he still spins every weekend. He claims to be the first guy from whose car somebody clambered:"[The first jumper is] a very close friend of mine," he says. "We tried some funny tricks, hey, like drag racing and stunts. And that's how it developed, the whole thing. People have different perspectives in terms of spinning. People say it's very dangerous—but almost every sport is dangerous. What I would say to them is, if you're watching it, it looks dangerous. But in the car, it's different. You just have to be 100 percent sober-minded."Much of what makes spinning so popular is its celebrity aspect. Some of the spinners are more famous for their banter and presence than their driving skills. Jeff isn't one of those ("I just spin my car, man; that's it."). But when you're fucking up a car every other weekend, the expenses rack up. You need to be the celeb who can name his price when the promoters and organizers come calling. Jeff has won that right—he maintains his car by demanding food and accommodation for the events he spins at.Since it's not yet a recognized sport, all of the spinners—even the celebs—also have day jobs. Generally it's related to cars in some way. Jeff runs a taxi service. Mageshe Ndaba, the man they call the King of Spin, is also in the taxi industry. Unlike Jeff, he plays up the celeb aspect—plays up the cash. He sounds slightly offended when I ask him where he ranks within the spinning community.
"I wouldn't have the name 'King of Spin' if I wasn't one of the top competitors," he says. "They chose it. They gave it to me, back in 2003, because they loved what I was doing. Look, if people choose to call me that, it's fine; if they decide not to, it's also fine."
Mageshe was also there right at the beginning, an 18-year-old in matric. He wasn't from Soweto, and he used to drive his BMW from neighboring Springs at night to take part."We had no controlled areas back then. We had to do it in the streets," he recalls. "I had my close calls with the cops. Sometimes I talked my way out of it. Sometimes they even asked me to demonstrate."What's funny is, since the popularity boom, the same cops who used to chase these kids are now massive fans. "For sure! No doubt about it—they say now, 'Hey, look bra, we love what you're doing, hey.' I think if I applied for advanced driving to train the cops, I'd get that job, like, yesterday, my bra."All people know me as [the] Father of Spinning, so their parents come to me and say, 'Look at these Mageshis!' So I try to encourage them to be safe."And these kids will have an easier time of it, especially in terms of safety, should government acquiesce and make a sport out of this phenomenon. It has all the classic calling cards of an everyman's sport, just like football: the lack of discrimination, the primal excitement, the come-all and one-for-all vibe. Subsidy and regulation is what is sorely needed for spinning to shed the stigma of gangster culture and non-regulation. But it's so damn expensive.
"Bra—you don't wanna know. You don't wanna know. There's nothing as expensive as spinning, hey," says Mageshe when I quiz him about it.
Pule Earm is a documentary filmmaker, spinning promoter, commentator, and political busybody. He only spins in private, to be able to articulate the feeling to other people, to "categorically explain the feeling of performance better than a spinner can." He's made it his mission since 2009 to punt this township pastime into the big time on the national circuit. Pule is the confluence point between politics and the spinner on the ground."I realized early that the guys don't have a voice," he says. "So my entry level was being a spokesperson on behalf of the industry, through my storytelling capacities."He's founded Soweto Drift, a spinning school and promotions agency that's at the forefront of the drive for regulation."The whole concept of Soweto Drift came from a film. It was inspired by the likes of Tokyo Drift, The Fast and the Furious," he tells me. "We wanted to make it into a South African concept. The film has been played on a couple of film festivals and is now even on Mzansi [a local film channel]."I met with Fikile Mbalula [South African Minister of Sport] last month to talk about spinning. I've met him on a number of occasions as a comrade, so I know him, you know. Basically, it was out of this world. He just came and greeted us and we had a conversation with the director-general of motorsport. The idea of them taking this so seriously inspired me to push harder."
His pushing has led to a partial breakdown of social and class divisions, to the point where even white folk from upper-class Johannesburg—along with a host of political celebs—make the trip to inner Soweto regularly. Which is maybe the only thing stranger than the sight of a bunch of guys clambering over screeching cars mid-doughnut."It is definitely a recent thing," he says. "The guys in the industry, they started inviting their white friends. We do the spinning in Soweto. The attendance isn't as high as the events in the East Rand, or Mayhem in Pretoria. It's because of the nature of the venues we use. In Soweto, it's hardcore township. The neighboring residents in Pretoria are white, so you get more white people there, as opposed to Soweto. I will take that credit alone and say Soweto Drift has made that possible, and inspired other promoters to broaden their horizons in terms of their target markets. That makes it easier for other people to have whites at their events. Now that spinning is in that environment, the motorsport fanatics will go anywhere."It makes me excited. Because the way we want to position car spinning is to make it a national sport. So we can't be ignorant, or envious, when white people are at the events. That's what we want. Unfortunately, we live in a world where some of us believe that if a white man endorses something, it's successful. Personally, I don't believe that, but I have no problem with white communities coming to the spinning. I see that as positive, and it simply means that if the audience can easily adapt to sharing, without putting up barriers, so can the motorsport in terms of administrative processes and maybe get some non-white people on the boards of motorsport directors."You get all types of backgrounds. You get guys from the poor communities, the middle class, the high class. It's not like boxing, where, you know, you only get the elite. Or cricket. It's like soccer, basically," says Pule. "It crosses all the lines in terms of race, politics, class—it doesn't discriminate."In a country as divided as South Africa, that takes some doing.Follow Karl on Twitter.