It’s a hot Sunday afternoon and I’m parked in the emergency lane on the Ergo Road turn-off, just off the N17 near Springs. Hypnotised by the ticking hazard lights, my mobile squawks and my innards fill with razor-winged butterflies.
They’re on their way: the ones who, when not gripping guns and liquor, apparently do crazy things in highly modified German saloons. They’re criminals, I’m told; carjackers, thieves, con men who’ve nothing better to do than stick a big, gold-ringed finger in society’s face. Some drag race illegally through the streets at night, but most seem hell-bent on an almost primal activity that involves spinning a rear-wheel-drive car until the tyres smoke, catch fire and explode. Friends warned me about coming to meet them and joked I wouldn’t be seen again.
A few minutes later I see, squinting through the heat haze, two badass BMWs cresting the rise. The driver of the lead car spots the lone white boy in the weedy Yaris and, after winding down a heavily tinted window, tells him to follow the duo back into the kasi. I do. Trailing in their booming exhaust wake, I roll through dusty streets and teeming intersections until our convoy halts next to a lonely patch of parkland. Taking a deep breath, I kill the ignition and walk towards the man exiting his polished 325i.
“Welcome to Kwathema,” announces Magesh Ndaba and grips my hand. “Sorry I was bit late, but I was delayed at church.” I’m more than a little taken aback by this unexpected love for God so I stammer out something about it not being a problem. Ndaba, or The King of Spin as he likes to call himself, is one of Kwathema’s best-known sons; a motoring legend who’s been involved in spinning and drag racing for over 11 years. A hit in both automotive disciplines, he’s been the subject of local TV docs and has often appeared between the covers of glossies.
Some more young bucks rock up in a VW Golf and another BMW, and we cruise down to Nkosi Street and park in front of a neat face-brick shebeen. The assortment of guys who’ve already gathered on its pavement wolf-whistle at Ndaba’s arrival.
“These are the best spinners and racers in the township,” roars Ndaba over the bass of a car sound system. Glancing at the curious faces, I know I should feel on edge, but I’m strangely relaxed and ready for anything.
“People have this perception that we’re gangsters,” Ndaba says, “but we’re not. We all have legitimate jobs (Magesh owns his own transport company); none of us drink and drive and we certainly didn’t steal any of the cars you see here.”
Leaning against the bonnet of a Citi Golf with planet-sized mags, I ask about the local community and what they think of these automotive theatrics.
“Look around you,” Ndaba says, gesturing towards the swelling number of spectators: an interesting mix of curious kids and bemused pedestrians.
“Everyone loves us here,” he claims. “Car culture is massive in Kwathema. The only trouble we ever get is from the SAP and Metro — they spoil our fun and break up our meetings.”
Suddenly a white Toyota Venture pulls up out of nowhere and its driver snarls something at Ndaba. They exchange heated words until the hooting of backed-up traffic forces him to move on. “You see, we haven’t been here for long and already they’re messing with us. That guy was a ‘plainclothes’, but I’m not scared of him. I fear no man; I fear no car — only God.”
When I strike up a conversation with Sipho Ngoma, a specialist drag racing, I discover why the cops are being so strict. Dressed in a white Pierre Cardin hat and a striped Lacoste golf shirt, Ngoma explains that, ever since Wesbank Raceway closed down, sold to property developers a few years ago, there’s been nowhere for the guys to race.
“That place offered a safe environment for us to compete in. Now that it’s gone we’ve got no other choice but to take to the streets. Obviously this is against the law, so the police are always trying to shut us down. But you know, we’ve learned to work around this by ducking and diving.”
He then tells me about his Toyota Tazz “that kicks ass” and how he’s spent 11 years customising it.
“I’ve changed everything on this car, from the interior and sound, right up to the specially tuned 4A-GE twin-cam engine. It produces 96kW stock but now it’s even stronger.”
I try extract a power figure from him but he just laughs; a true racer, apparently, should never tell people how powerful their car is. Considering all the tweaks, I’d put it around the 125kW mark.
“You’ve always got to have that element of surprise,” says Ngoma. You see, I take my racing seriously; it’s a reason to wake up in the morning and earn a living, so I can afford all these modifications. No matter what the cops do, I’ll never give it up.”
So far, everything I’ve seen seems pretty normal to me; just a bunch of guys passionate about cars and who dig competing against each other for respect and status. So where does their fearsome image come from then?
“Because spinning and drag events are not controlled or marshalled in the townships, they often attract the shadier sect of society; guys who get high on booze and drugs and then try compete against pros like us. This happens a lot within the spinning scene and, in places like Reiger Park, fights can break out when people try to stop these idiots from taking part.”
The afternoon sky has bruised a deep purple and the wind carries the scent of a thunderstorm. Knowing there’ll be little action this evening because of the wet conditions, the Kwathema crew calls it a day. Normally they’d be heading out to some abandoned industrial park to race against other petrolheads from Benoni and Daveyton, but instead they decide to head up to The Bahamas — a restaurant that has a now defunct spinning arena dug into its car park.
Before making his getaway, The King of Spin arranges someone to escort me back to the N17 and, after slapping his palm into mine, says: “Come back any time, bra. You know everyone’s welcome here.” – Thomas Falkiner (Pictures: Bram Lammers)