South African soccer fans. © Unknown.
South African soccer fans. © Unknown.

THEY are gaudy, they are fun and they are poised to become the fashion statement of the football World Cup next year.

THEY are gaudy, they are fun and they are poised to become the fashion statement of the football World Cup next year.

Of all the paraphernalia surrounding football in South Africa the pimped-up construction hats, or makarapas, worn by devotees of the game, are the weirdest and most wonderful.

Cut, twisted and painted into fabulous headdresses they give the wearer a look that is part sorcerer and part court jester.

At South Africa's games in the ongoing Confederations Cup, rows of makarapa-wearing supporters, blowing noisily on vuvuzelas, provide as much entertainment as the players.

The makarapa dates back to 1979, according to the man credited with making the first one.

Alfred Baloyi, 53, a die-hard e Kaizer Chiefs supporter, had the idea while sitting in a stadium.

"Someone threw a bottle and hit someone on the head," says Baloyi, sitting in a dark corner of his shack in a squatter camp outside Johannesburg, where he still makes the colourful crowns.

At his next game Baloyi, who worked as a cleaner in Limpopo at the time, wore his work's safety helmet decorated with football imagery.

As the helmets gained currency among club football fans, he began cutting them and bending them into fantastical shapes.

Three decades ago he was making two or three a day and trying to sell them on the street.

Now, as more and more companies cotton on to the possibility of using makarapas as a branding tool, Baloyi has gone into partnership with a sports marketing specialist to begin producing his helmets on a commercial scale.

In a warehouse in downtown Johannesburg dozens of young men in orange overalls are working on an order of 190 makarapas for an egg producer.

First, a blue German robot called a Motoman cuts the outline design in the helmet. The egg helmet takes all of 62 seconds.

The helmet is then heated to smooth the cut edges and bent into, or out of, shape. It gains a dribbling footballer on top and "ears" at the side for the company logo.

Miniature footballs, vuvuzelas, bicycle bells and other accessories can all be piled on top to add attitude and value.

The helmet then passes into the hands of the artists, seated at big tables covered in sawn-off drinks cans filled with paint, like a kindergarten make-and-do class.

A basic makarapa costs about R200 but models with all the bells and whistles can cost R800 and more.

As the orders pour in from restaurants, newspaper groups, tourism councils, Rapid Mass Prototyping, as the company is called, has stepped up recruiting. In two months, the workforce has grown from eight to 31.

Baloyi's fortunes have also improved. He earns a comfortable wage from his two business partners - a sum he doesn't want to disclose for security reasons - as well as a cut of all the makarapas sold.

The money has allowed him to extend his shack in Primrose squatter camp and pay for his daughter Calphina, 20, to go to art school. - Sapa