Dancing with Death – The Train Surfers of Soweto

There’s no sea in Johannesburg so the poor young men from the inner city of Soweto get their kicks by surfing high-speed commuter trains. This dangerous pastime has claimed many lives throughout the years, but despite several initiatives to put a stop to it, train surfing remains pretty popular.

South Africa is considered the birth place of train surfing, with reports of people performing stunts on top of moving train cars dating back to the early 1980s. From here, the extreme hobby spread all around the world, from Brazil, to Germany and Russia, but Johannesburg remains unique through its variety of styles. The most common and least dangerous form of train surfing involves climbing on top of a car, jumping off as it starts moving and climbing back on again while it’s in motion. Then there is side surfing, with the wannabe stuntmen running alongside the train on the passenger platform as his friends keep the door open, or swinging out the door when the train passes through a tunnel and running on the walls. Another one has daredevils get under the train while it’s moving and kicking the gravel with their legs. But the most lethal of all is surfing on top of the train while trying to dodge power cables and bridges. All the different moves have names like Matrix, 2020, Gravul or Svandals.


Photo: Ziphozonke Lushaba/The Star

Growing up in the Soweto ghetto, with no chance of getting proper education and decent jobs, young train riders see surfing as an easy way of getting notoriety among their peers. Many of them know they’re gambling with their own lives every time they perform their extreme stunts, but it’s a risk worth taking for gaining the attention they crave. Others believe train surfers see death as a way of escaping their daily problems, so emboldened by alcohol and drugs, they jump onto trains without thinking twice about the high probability of losing their lives. Many of them fall off or get electrocuted, but there are always new thrill-seekers to take their place.



Sources: BBC, Iol

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