Skateboarding for Change (and Gender Equality) in South Africa

Skateistan has opened its latest chapter in Johannesburg, hoping to provide an escape for young South Africans, especially girls, in a city and a country with the highest rates of murder and domestic violence in the world.

by Mary Catherine O'Connor
Dec 11 2015, 8:25pm

Courtesy Steve Gennrich

David Webster Park, in Johannesburg's Troyeville neighborhood, is named after a local anti-Apartheid activist who was assassinated by the Apartheid police in 1989. The area's quality of life has only deteriorated in the decades since. Johannesburg has one of the world's worst—and worsening—murder rates, and in Troyeville public drinking is common, car tires are often stolen, and rumors of muggings circulate almost nightly.

Yet as Kelly Murray, a Johannesburg native and one of the best professional female skaters on the continent, pulled up to the park, a throng of young girls crowded around the car.

"Are you going to drop in today?" Murray asked one of the kids, a tall skinny girl with cornrows braided into two pigtails, who demurely ignores the question. She's the class ripper, having first dropped in at the end of September.

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Murray is a sports coordinator for Skateistan, an organization founded in 2007 to provide a sanctuary to kids in war-torn Kabul through skating and classroom lessons. It has since expanded to Afghanistan's fourth largest city, Mazar-e-Sharif, as well as to two cities in Cambodia. This past June, Johannesburg became the program's fifth city. Skateistan South Africa broke ground at a permanent home in Joburg's up-and-coming Maboneng Precinct last month. The facility will include a skatepark and classrooms constructed from shipping containers; it's scheduled to open next April or May.

In the meantime, the organization holds its classes and skate sessions in rented spaces and temporary locations around the city, like the long-abandoned bowl at David Webster Park. As we unloaded skateboards and helmets from the trunk of Murray's car and headed to the bowl, the first thing I noticed was the glass: it was everywhere. There seemed to be more broken glass on the ground than grass growing from the soil. The first aid kit that Murray brought along now seems like a very good thing to have: few of the kids' shoes had laces, and some were completely barefoot. The Skateistan staff, though, has cleaned the area immediately around the bowl of debris.

It was Tuesday, which meant that the session at the park was just for girls. Female empowerment and gender equality have been major tenets of Skateistan's programs since its first school opened in Kabul, where Afghan cultural conservatism limits girls' access to both formal education and sports. Skateistan strives for gender balance in both its staffing and among the children it serves; across its first four locations, more than 40 percent of participants are girls.

At Troyeville, about a dozen girls, most around 10 years old or younger, showed up. We spent an hour skating, coaxing them across the cracked asphalt and helping them ride the gentle bowl. Some of the time was spent shooing away a young boy who kept trying to snag one of the boards. We promised him he'd be able to ride one if he came back for the general session on Thursday, but he lingered, stealing a few seconds of board time here and there when one of the girls left her ride unattended.

A group of young men and boys, some of them still wearing their school uniforms, congregated on a nearby bench. Murray later told me she would have asked the group to leave, but we were far outnumbered. As the girls skated in the bowl, the boys passed around a pipe—probably meth or heroin (both of which are a problem in Johannesburg), guessed Carolien Greyling, the education coordinator for the Troyeville classes who grew up in the neighborhood during the 1990s. When a group of guys was hanging out similarly close during a skate session a few months before, she said, one of them threatened to stab her when she asked them to leave.

As we left the park, one of the girls motioned to a man that appeared to be in his early twenties standing near a basketball court. She had seen the man threaten the park security guard, who now sat in his outpost with a bored look on his face and a gun. Just another day, it seemed, in Johannesburg.

The future site of Skateistan South Africa's newest facility. Courtesy Skateistan

About 49 people are killed each day in Johannesburg, a city of over 750,000. That number has steadily increased in the past few years, as have carjackings, burglaries, and armed robberies. Drug use is rampant—especially a cheap form of meth known as tik. The youth unemployment rate hovers around 30 percent. It's a challenging landscape to navigate for young people, which is exactly what inspired Skateistan to open its latest branch here.

"In Afghanistan and Cambodia, we have been able to use skateboarding as a hook to address complex social issues faced by youth," said Oliver Percovich, who founded Skateistan and serves as its Executive Director. "Skateistan is doing the same work in South Africa to address barriers such as social inequality, youth unemployment, gender discrimination, poverty and lack of education opportunities."

Most of the financial backing for Skateistan comes from the Tony Hawk Foundation and the Danish Embassy, a connection that Skateistan fostered in its early days in Afghanistan. At the beginning of December, Skateistan launched a campaign to raise $100,000 to fund its projects through 2016.

Roughly 100 kids have joined the South Africa program since its launch earlier this year, largely thanks to word of mouth and partnerships with local NGOs serving disadvantaged youth. Many of them, says Jordan Saltzman, an education coordinator for Skateistan South Africa, have likely seen more crime and violence than they're psychologically able to process.

That exposure to violent crime, drug and alcohol abuse, and brutality can have a trickle-down effect. The boys "tend to think they can express themselves through violence," Saltzman said. For example, it's taken time for them to realize that being bumped by another skater—inevitable at the park—is not a personal affront. "We try to use skateboarding to show them another form of expression."

Growing up female in Joburg is doubly hard, Saltzman says. South Africa has one of the worst rates of violent crimes against women in the world: on average, three women are killed every day by an intimate partner. The case of Oscar Pistorius, who was recently found guilty of murdering his girlfriend on Valentine's Day in 2013, has brought international attention to the problem, but not relief.

Rape and sexual assault is also a serious issue in the country. A 2009 study by the South African Medical Research Council, a government research and development organization, surveyed 1,737 males and found that one in four (27.6%) reported raping at least one woman. Seventy percent of the men interviewed were under 30 years old, and nearly 10 percent of those who had committed sexual assault said they were 10 years old or younger the first time they forced themselves on a female.

Through educating others about gender equality, Skateistan hopes to change these numbers, and the attitudes at their root. As at its other locations around the world, the organization supplements the life lessons learned on a board with tutoring in pre-skate classroom sessions.

"Even if the kids are doing OK in terms of having a roof over their head and clothes and food, they're in the inner-city public schools, and the quality of that education isn't great," said Ayanda Mnyandu, Skateistan's operations manager and another Troyeville native.

Greyling agrees. "These kids tell me they want to be doctors or engineers, but some of them are nine years old and they can't read," she said.

Skateistan can't completely fill that education gap, but it does hope to give kids some of the confidence and emotional resilience they'll need in the face of Johannesburg's everyday challenges.

When I asked a couple of girls during another session at a rooftop park if they could skate as well as the boys, they both looked at me sideways. "Boys are better," one said, matter-of-factly. This despite the fact that one of these girls, who skates barefoot while using one hand to hold her braids away from her eyes, is clearly among the bravest skaters in the session. I asked what her favorite part of Skateistan is.

"I like to drop in," she whispered shyly. "And when I fall, the teachers tell me to get up and try again. It's no problem."

Those glimpses of fleeting confidence are the foundation for what Skateistan wants to encourage.

Courtesy Steve Gennrich