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      Welcome to the Skate Park in the Middle of a South African Township Welcome to the Skate Park in the Middle of a South African Township
      Photo: Markus GilliarGES for Mercedes-Benz
      April 13, 2016

      Welcome to the Skate Park in the Middle of a South African Township

      Smiling shyly, 12-year-old Wayden pops the tail of his skateboard to the ground before kicking it into a perfect 360 degree flip. As he lands squarely on top of it he looks up, his grin no longer shy.

      "I told you!" he says. "And I can do more tricks. You want to see?"

      With his oversized T-shirt, lace-up plimsolls and black baseball cap, Wayden looks like a regular teenager in his local skate park. And, as he manoeuvres his board into position for his next trick, glancing up to check I'm paying attention, it's clear he can show off like one too.

      Here in the village of Kleinvlei in South Africa, an hour's drive from Cape Town, there is not a lot to show off about. The surrounding townships are among the most deprived areas of the country, and the solid concrete lines of the skate park provide a stark contrast to the dilapidated corrugated iron and haphazard brickwork that make up the nearby homes.

      Wayden demonstrates a trick from his repertoire / Photo: Franki Cookney

      On the grey wall behind the park someone has graffitied the words "Peace, balance and love." But not long ago this was a no-go area. Gangs operated nearby and the open space would be littered with drug paraphernalia.

      21-year-old Kyle Trusky has been skating here since 2009.

      "When I first started things were really sketchy," he says.

      "I've seen kids as young as eight or nine doing drugs and smoking. We've heard gunshots going off. There isn't a single kid here who hasn't heard the sound of a gunshot."

      Now, every weekday afternoon from 3:30, the dusty square is filled with local children strapping on knee pads and taking their first tentative wobbles on a skateboard.

      The park and the lessons are operated by Indigo Youth Movement, founded by South African former pro skateboarder Dallas Oberhalzer. Backed by South African sport charity Laureus, and part of their Real Heroes campaign, the project offers kids from ages five through 18 skateboarding lessons, as well as community building and life skills.

      Photo: Markus GilliarGES for Mercedes-Benz

      They provide the boards, helmets and knee pads. Even Wayden's T-shirt is a charity donation. And while he may be sporting skate-appropriate footwear, around him kids are clambering on to boards in flip flops, sandals and even bare feet. Shoes are the least of their concerns. Without skating, there's a high chance that within a couple of years they would be scooped up by gangs and on a path to a life of crime.

      "Gangs look at recruiting youths at the ages of 13-14," explains project leader Charl Jensel.

      "They become runners or involved in the drug world. I hear gunshots and I know that if the kids were not with me they would either be the ones shooting the gun or the one who had to hide the gun."

      Or worse. Kyle tells me the story of a boy from a neighbouring township who dropped out of skateboarding classes and was found dead a few days later after being caught up in gang violence. He was 16.

      "That kind of opened the kids' eyes," says Charl. "It's like, if you're not part of this programme you really could end up like that. It's this or dead. It's real."

      Project leader Charl Jensel / Photo: Markus GilliarGES for Mercedes-Benz

      It certainly is. South Africa has one of the highest murder rates in the world and in 2014 Cape Town was ranked by one NGO as Africa's most dangerous city, with more than 50 murders per 100,000 people. Most of these take place in the Cape Flats, dubbed "apartheid's dumping ground." Once ghettos for people of colour forced out of the city centre in the seventies and eighties, these marginalised communities still suffer the effects of poverty and social exclusion.

      But if a skate park seems out of place here, it's nothing compared to Indigo's first project in a Zulu township near Durban on South Africa's eastern coast. In the as-rural-as-it-sounds Valley of the Thousand Hills in the KwaZulu-Natal province, you're more likely to share the dirt road with goats and chickens than cars. It was here that Dallas set up his first skateboarding school in 2001. It initially operated as a Skate Camp, offering activity holidays to city kids from Durban as a means of bringing in money to the poverty-stricken area, and a way of bringing about social integration with the local AmaZulu tribes.

      Dallas said: "We saw how it was really breaking barriers socially, so from there we developed skateboarding instruction manuals and developed ways to teach skateboarding alongside a positive message."

      Indigo's original skate camp in Durban / Photo: Craig Scott

      He recruited Charl to head up the Western Cape projects after finding him working in a skate park in the nearby university town of Stellenbosch. The 28-year-old started skating at the age of 15 after dropping out of school, but returned to education after realising that skating could provide him with a legitimate career.

      "At that age I just wanted to be cool. But when I actually started skateboarding I started seeing things differently. It made me want to learn new things and better myself."

      Nevertheless, he said it wasn't until he visited the project that he really believed the same could happen for other kids.

      "I saw what a difference they were making and I realised this is what my community needs. In our society the only people kids have to look up to are gangsters."

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      Dallas agrees: "People round here don't have an identity or purpose. They're just surviving. These areas around the Cape Flats are notorious gang areas, very high risk areas. But when kids are here in the skate park they're engaged in an activity, they have something to focus on."

      The class gathers around as Charl kicks off a series of repetition chants and physical warm ups. He calls out: "How does Indigo help us be positive role models?" A few tentative hands go up.

      "We learn how to respect and support each other," offers one boy.

      "Right!" says Charl. "So hands up if you're a positive role model." This time every hand in the circle shoots up enthusiastically.

      Photo: Markus GilliarGES for Mercedes-Benz

      * * *

      Between April 2014 and March 2015 there were 17,805 murders and more than 50,000 sexual offences in South Africa. The country has one of the biggest wealth divides in the world and is number one on the World Bank's GINI index, which measures financial inequality.

      Unlike some sports, skateboarding is accessible to even the poorest.

      Dallas gestures to the concrete ledge we're sitting on. "You don't need much infrastructure for skateboarding and the beauty of a skate park is how indestructible it is."

      Plus, it's perceived as cool enough to attract even the toughest kids. In 2010 Indigo got a visit from American skating legend and Laureus ambassador Tony Hawk. And in 2013 Indigo alumnus Thalente Biyela moved to the US to pursue a professional skating career. The aptly-named (Thalente is both pronounced and means "talent") teenager now lives in LA and was the subject of the 2015 documentary, I am Thalente.

      "We really like to try and instil at a young age that anyone can become a star," says Dallas.

      Photo: Markus GilliarGES for Mercedes-Benz

      "We want to try and help them feel connected to something bigger through the family and the culture of skateboarding. We want to give children hope."

      Gang crime is not the only threat to these kids wellbeing. Here in the Cape Flats adult unemployment stands at 23.9% with youth unemployment even worse at 31.9%. Without work or prospects, many people turn to alcohol and drugs.

      A 2013 study by the South African Medical Research Council found that 40% of men have hit their partners and one in four men has raped a woman. Not only that, three quarters of those who admitted to rape say the first time they did it was as a teenager.

      The warm-up complete, the kids form a conga line and snake their way, blindfolded, around an obstacle course made of piled up skateboards. Behind them the older kids grind and ollie over ridges and rails. In the background, across the barren plains of the Cape Flats, the craggy contours of the Boland mountains rise up sharply through the haze.

      Photo: Markus GilliarGES for Mercedes-Benz

      "Kids are just looking for a gang to feel part of and skateboarding creates that for them," says Charl.

      "Skateboarding is cool. It's that sense of freedom when you're on your board, you can just forget about everything else."

      At the edge of the park, a mother holds her two-year-old's hand as she pushes him along on a tiny plastic skateboard. The child can barely stand but he shrieks with delight as the blue wheels turn slowly beneath him. He's still a few years away from being able to sign up for lessons but his mum is keen for him to get a head start.

      "I come down here as soon as I finish work," she tells me.

      I ask if he will join the class when he's old enough and she nods emphatically.

      "As soon as he can."

      @frankicookney

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