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Staff Riding - the deadly art of train surfing in South Africa

There are not many places in the world where you could get away with something like this, but South Africa seems to be one of them. And for too many, the risk is far greater than prison time. They call it ‘staff riding’, a scarily common sport for dare-devil thrill-seekers which involves jumping aboard moving trains and surfing on the carriage roofs, dodging 3,000 volt electric cables. Some say it’s a means of finding release or even a way to express themselves.

Italian photographer and film maker Marco Casino went to Katlehong, one of the largest townships in South Africa to document this subculture and witness the deadly pastime that has become part of the everyday commute…

“The almost total majority of surfers are kids under 25. Amputations and death are really common. The Prasa Metrorail, the SA train company, is one of the foundations of their society. This connection between train and citizens remained very strong over time. The spectacular and risky act of train surfing becomes the framework to tell the Katlehong’s young people social fabric.”

“This place has been the epicenter of the anti-apartheid’s guerrillas, and on the eve of the twentieth anniversary of the facts that we all know, the situation of segregation has remained more or less unchanged in daily life. In a context where violence, rampant poverty, abuse of alchool/drugs and infant birth/AIDS are the masters, the train surfing is configured as the search for a social redemption that will never come for the characters of this story. Staff Riding is part of a long-term project about the township lifestyle 20 years later the struggle against apartheid.”

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Marco Casino: Staff Riding (South Africa), 
via photographicmuseumofhumanity

Staff riding, the local slang for train surfing, is a widespread phenomenon in SA. Katlehong is one of the largest townships in South Africa and has played a key role in the history of the struggle against apartheid. The population is strongly multiethnic: all the eleven South Africa’s official languages are spoken in the township.

Almost the total majority of surfers are kids under 25. Amputations and death are really common. The Prasa Metrorail, the SA train company, is one of the foundations of their society.This connection between train and citizens remained very strong over time. The spectacular and risky act of train surfing becomes the framework to tell the Katlehong’s young people social fabric.This place has been the epicenter of the anti-apartheid’s guerrillas, and on the eve of the twentieth anniversary of the facts that we all know , the situation of segregation has remained more or less unchanged in daily life.

In a context where violence , rampant poverty , abuse of alchool/drugs and infant birth/AIDS are the masters , the train surfing is configured as the search for a social redemption that will never come for the characters of this story . Staff Riding is part of a long-term project about the township lifestyle 20 years later the struggle against apartheid.

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The Crazy Train Surfers Who Flirt With Death for Sport

In the townships of Johannesburg a dangerous game is being played. Reckless students and disenfranchised young men are dangling from cars and clambering atop the roofs of commuter trains. These thrill seekers risk life and limb in a sport called Staff Riding–a combination of cocksure showmanship and cathartic release.

Photojournalist Marco Casino took his first trip to South Africa to document this high-stakes distraction from poverty and boredom. Underneath the dangerous acrobatics, which leave the unlucky either killed, electrocuted or maimed, Casino found a microcosm of the nation’s stratified society.

The trains link the wealthy urban core with its ramshackle outskirts, packed with exhausted workers, street preachers, latchkey kids and these Staff Riding daredevils. The commute emphasizes the psychological distance between city and township. Those ducking power lines and surfing curves high above the tracks are the latest generation left to grapple with the legacy of apartheid.

“Most of them really had a lot of diffidence about me, because it’s illegal,” says Casino. “They are not so comfortable with the camera.”

Casino found out about Staff Riding by watching the documentary Surfing Soweto, and tracked down the production team to set up contacts. He set up shop in Katlehong, 20 miles southeast of Johannesburg, staying at his fixer’s house.

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…an exhilarating mini-doc by Marco Casino on the dangerous sport of train surfing in South Africa.

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Spaza is a slang term used in South Africa that means “just getting by.” It’s what locals call the corner store. Spazas are a staple in townships where they sell basic necessities to customers from behind a metal grate, often in small increments and sometimes on credit. As photographer Marco Casino explains, “One egg might set you back 12 cents. A single cigarette costs 18 cents.”

The job of a spaza owner is dangerous—generally due to robbery, but sometimes because of other reasons, such as xenophobia. A figure is difficult to calculate since not all of the shops or the workers are recorded, but some studies estimate that as many as half of tuck-shops are owned by foreign workers.

Some are asylum seekers fleeing conflict, others are searching for better opportunities. South Africa has seen instances of xenophobic attacks in the past, and a string of recent lootings of foreign-owned shops puts some spaza owners at a higher risk.

“During apartheid, there were no official shops in the townships, so these spazas developed primarily for the poorest part of the population. The tuck-shops are still most of the market in townships,” says Casino.

Something else that differentiates the tuck-shops from other retail stores is that they often operate on direct credit. “People don’t usually pay for what they’re buying because they know they can pay in later days. Spazas have a strong social role as an informal social safety net for the poorest part of the population,” says Casino.

Photos by Marco Casino.

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Documentary of the week: Staff Riding - Marco Casino [2014]

La giuria internazionale dell'edizione 2014 della Sezione Multimedia del World Press Photo ha annunciato i vincitori. Tra questi, c'è il fotografo Marco Casino che ha ottenuto il primo premio nella categoria cortometraggi con “Staff Riding”, un lavoro sui surfer di treni in Sudafrica. In un contesto socio-economico problematico, il train surfing può essere visto come la ricerca di una redenzione sociale che per i protagonisti di questa storia non arriverà mai.

The international jury of the 2014 World Press Photo Multimedia Contest has awarded prizes in three category: short feature, long feature and interactive documentary. The italian photographer Marco Casino won the first prize in the short feature’s category with “Staff Riding”, a documentary concerning the train surfers in South Africa. In a difficult socio-economic context, the train surfing can be seen as a search for a social redemption that will never come for the characters of this story.

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Nella cittadina di Katlehong - a pochi chilometri da Johannesburg, un gruppo di giovani si cimenta nel surfare i treni della Prasa Metrorail, la compagnia ferroviaria sudafricana.

Vincitore nella sua categoria del World Press Photo Multimedia Contest, “Staff Riding” è un cortometraggio di Marco Casino - il racconto di un frammento di vita, in una “township” che ha giocato un ruolo chiave nella lotta contro l’apartheid.

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Video: Train Surfers in South Africa

Staff Riding, the local slang for train surfing, is a widespread phenomenon in South Africa. In Katlehong, one of the countries largest townships, almost the total majority of surfers are kids under 25.

Mini Docu: Staff Riding in Zuid Afrika

Mini Docu: Staff Riding in Zuid Afrika

Je hebt het wellicht al af en toe in het nieuws zien verschijnen, maar nu heeft Marco Casino er een mini documentaire over gemaakt; Staff Riding.

In de volksmond ook wel train surfing genoemd is met rasse schreden populairder aan het worden bij jongeren in, in dit geval, Zuid Afrika. Dit is uiteraard niet zonder gevaar; het rennen over treinen en hoogspanningskabels ontwijken kan natuurlijk niet…

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Train surfing is South Africa

Promise me that you’ll never try this. Never!

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