playing game of death

Penwell Dlamini

Penwell Dlamini

The dangerous train-surfing game has claimed several young lives. But the boys, some barely teenagers, who take part in the daily dance with death seem undaunted.

A week ago 16-year-old Lebogang Mashilwane of Molapo, Soweto, was buried. He was the latest victim.

The teenager was electrocuted on Valentine's Day while train surfing at Inhlanzane Station in Soweto.

A day before his funeral boys between the ages of 11 and 16 played the game as a tribute to their friend and fellow surfer.

In what seems to be a new and even more ominous development, the boys stood on railway lines and faced oncoming trains.

When the train was a few metres away, they jumped off the railway line to the applause of a crowd of more than 100 people, including adults, standing on the bridge between Merafe and Inhlanzane stations.

One would swear that the crowd, mostly made up of teenagers, was watching a football game.

"We are not promoting this, it is just a stunt that one rarely sees," said Sipho Masilela, one of the onlookers who is in his 30s.

Masilela said onlookers sometimes swore at train surfers to try and make them stop, but the boys would just continue.

The deadly spectacle takes place on Fridays between 3pm and 6pm, with police making routine patrols to the bridge to disperse the crowds.

Psychologist Jonathan Scholtz said train surfers had low self-esteem.

"It is normal for teenagers to do risky things but these boys are taking it to an extreme," said Scholtz.

He said they could come from abusive family backgrounds and were trying to prove to their peers that they too could reach the top.

Scholtz said it would require professional counselling and a new positive habit to replace this deadly game.

But townships are known for not having recreational facilities.

Percy Ntsolo, 20, of Dobsonville, Soweto, was able to quit train surfing in time.

"I saw my friends dying in front of me and that made me realise this was not good for me," said Ntsolo.

He played the deadly game for four months in 2003.

Ntsolo admitted that he was sometimes scared on top of a moving train, but the desire to be "the man" kept him going.

"Some of us took drugs before train surfing, but I just drank beer."

Ntsolo said he and his friends started surfing because they thought it would make them "famous" and get them many girlfriends.

But that was not the case.

Today, Ntsolo is a train safety ambassador and plans to study political science at the University of South Africa.

One woman from Mapetla, Soweto, who wished not to be named, said she had a 17-year-old brother who was still surfing.

She spoke to Sowetan about the stress her family had to cope with because of her brother's involvement in the deadly game.

"My brother failed Grade 11 because he used to bunk classes and go and do this thing," she said.

She said her brother had been train surfing for more than two years and she had tried talking him out of the habit, but failed.

"My father used to beat him but he gave up because of my brother's stubbornness.

"My mother is in denial and does not believe her son would do such a dangerous thing," she said.