Isaac Mangena, Agence France Presse, Nov. 16, 2006
One of his friends may have died in front of his eyes but 19-year-old Leepile is in no mood to listen to pleas to stop “train-surfing” through South Africa’s sprawling Soweto township.
“We feel like we are in another world when doing it, in heaven or something. It’s like we are floating, and don’t fear anything,” says the teenager.
“Girls just love it and fall for us,” adds Leepile, who is a member of a gang of train-surfers known as the Vandals.
For the youths of Soweto, a poverty-wracked dustbowl next to Johannesburg, the desire to seek out the ultimate thrill is all too often overwhelming.
The death of four youngsters in the last three weeks alone has failed to deter their friends from practising as stuntmen on the top of locomotives hurtling towards the centre of the City of Gold.
Some of the daredevils try to limbo-dance under bridges while others do “the gravel”, which involves dragging their heels along the ground on a moving train.
Another popular trick is to “staff-ride” by jumping off one of the front carriages and leaping back on another a few seconds later.
The consequences of failure can frequently end in death, whether by slamming into a 3,000-volt electricity cable or landing badly after jumping.
“It is way out of hand. The problem is too big to handle now. It is stupidity on the side of the kids,” says Johannesburg Emergency Services chief superintendent Malcolm Midgely.
“More often than not, they get electrocuted from overhead wires, collide with poles or tunnels, or just fall off.”
Transport Minister Jeff Radebe condemned the craze as “abhorrent and totally disturbing” when he launched a new railway safety body last month.
But his outburst failed to dissuade 15-year-old Thato ‘Jananda’ Thage from trying his luck on the roof of the Soweto-Johannesburg train several days later, egged on by fellow members of the Vandals gang who had been drinking.
He was killed immediately when he smashed into an overhead pole which contained an electric cable.
“Jananda forgot to go down quickly … He died right in front of my eyes,” recalls his friend Julius Moeketsi, still reeling with shock.
The group were out train-surfing as a bizarre tribute to another of their gang who had fallen to his death a few days earlier.
“We just thought it would be appropriate to give our friend, a fitting farewell by doing what we did with him before he died,” says Julius.
“But after our friend died, we were arrested by the police … We weren’t even able to bury our friend.”
Julius also had a scrape with death on the same journey, and bears the scars on his neck that he sustained when he fell onto a platform.
Parents are at loss as how they can stop their children from putting their lives on the line.
Thato’s father blamed his late son’s teachers, saying they were well aware of what he was up to when he should have been in class.
“The school failed me. They fail us as parents. We take kids to school knowing that they are safely under their supervision,” Molefe Thage told AFP.
“We don’t know what they do during the day at school, and if they misbehave, we need to be informed as parents. Their responsibility is not to teach only, but teach and guide the kids. I am disappointed.”
The headteacher at Thato’s old high school said he knew that pupils had been train-surfing for some time, but “there was nothing we could do about it.”
“When these kids commit suicide, it’s not our problem,” Steve Monyemorathoe told AFP.
“It is the responsibility of the parents. These children are not taught good from bad . . . We have tried to speak to these kids but they don’t listen.”
Some however do seem to have learnt the lessons of the recent tragedies.
“How can I go back? My friend is dead, he died right in front of me,” Thato’s friend, Romeo Ndebele.
“I don’t want to be a statistic. I quit.”