From Soweto, with love

Four-wheel drive enthusiast, commentator and television presenter Tumelo Maketekete grew up in Soweto in a time when cars were few and far between. Nowadays, it’s a very different matter and the 4×4s – or vehicles considered to be 4×4s even though they’re not – are quite the popular accessories. If you want to drive up a pavement, that is. Tumelo provides some insight into township rides.

I was born in the Tladi Clinic, a few months after the 1976 Soweto Uprising, armed with just a white cloth nappy and an appetite only for breast milk. A few years later, I was to start at Entokozweni Crèche. Both mom and dad were at their prime then, and helped keep the economy going and growing. That meant Mme Dorah (an elderly neighbour), married to Ntate Frans, was to help look after me when my parents were at work. Ntate Frans owned a huge white Ford pick-up that was driven on special occasions, or whenever he felt like fetching me from crèche. It carried a black and white ‘TJ’ number plate at each end and had a massive bench seat that could easily seat four rugby players. Not that I knew that it was a Ford back then… it was only when I was a teenager that I learnt that there are Fords, Toyotas and other cars. These were good times, and I have fond memories about those cars and learning about them – little did I know they would shape me to who I am today. Ntate Isaac, another neighbour, also had a rusted Peugeot 404, resting among weeds on four bricks, its nose pointing towards the opposite yard. This was my playground.

Back in the ’80s cars in the township were rare and often symbolic of that particular family being slightly above average compared to the rest of us. The closest my dad got to owning or driving a car, was having his driver’s licence stamped in his identity book. In those days, 4×4s were an unknown quantity, and only existed in the drama series on our black and white television. They were frowned upon as cars driven by crazy middle-aged white men who didn’t know the value of the many township shebeens, where locals enjoyed music and friendship, after a long week of catching the train at Merafe Station, going to work in the heart the Johannesburg. It was in 1994 when we were declared a democracy that I started seeing an influx of 4×4s into Soweto. The Mitsubishi Pajero, among the first to carry its spare wheel on its rear door, became a status symbol among the affluent black community.

But even then, 4×4 SUVs were never bought for the primary purpose they were designed for. This notion still holds true, to a great extent, among the black community. When people ask advice about buying a pre-owned 4×4, I always state: “look for one that was driven by someone from the black community, because the chances are great that the transfer gears were never engaged, and it never saw an off-road track in its life.” The way black folk, in general, view 4×4s is completely different to what the manufacturers would have them do. This is evident when you see people remove standard wheels and putting on large diameter rims and lower profile tyres – exactly the opposite of what you have to do if you want to increase your 4×4’s off-road ability. It’s like someone trying to hike up Table Mountain’s Platteklip Gorge in flip-flops. Mind you, the shiny 20-inch rims and low profile tyres are not limited to the black community – there are pockets of 20-inchers in every community.

In the township, any raised body bakkie is a 4×4, never-mind if it actually has a 4×4 drivetrain or not. It’s a common perception, and one that I’ve long since learnt not to challenge. It’s a 4×4, the drivers all claim. End of story. I bought my Toyota Hilux 3.0KZ-TE 4×4 some years ago and started to modify it, adding a host of overland paraphernalia. I’ve had to explain countless times that it is not a ‘work vehicle’ and that I’m actually using it to ‘play’ off-road. In other words, I use it for exploring off-road tracks and go on overland trips – I didn’t have a ladder and tools stashed on the bak that I used to work in the bush with. It is actually a leisure vehicle. The stares and emotions were often those of disbelief and misunderstanding. I’ve been labelled a ‘coconut,’ some even going as far as calling me Baas John. I haven’t taken offence to these comments, but instead I try and introduce people to the outdoors lifestyle. However, that is no easy task.

In the township, 4×4s are mainly used for crawling up mall pavements and providing owners with a sense of security by virtue of their girth – we also have to battle the impatient, rude and careless taxi drivers on a daily basis. The 4×4 segment has not really earned many populist nicknames yet. Some popular cars do have nicknames: Gusheshe (BMW 325iS), Side Pocket (Ford Bantam), Bojwa (VW Polo), Kentucky rounder (Toyota Corolla 1990-1994), Rabbit (VW Golf Mark 1), Twinky-twinky (Toyota GLi TwinCam), Vora (VW Golf VR6) and, more recently, Vorrrrphaaaa! (VW Golf GTI). Two 4×4s do have nicknames: The Toyota Land Cruiser Prado 120 is called Lebo Mathosa, after a popular kwaito artist of Boom Shaka fame who died in an accident while driving a Prado. And a ‘Tony Yengeni’ – which refers to a Mercedes-Benz ML, as per the ML that was big news in the corruption case against the politician of the same name.

Times have changed since 1976 and Mme Dorah, Ntate Frans and Ntate Isaac have long been buried, having not witnessed much of the democracy they fought for. But there is one 4×4 that still epitomises the dreams of thousands of teenagers and certifies the wealth status of rich black yuppies: the Mercedes-Benz G63 AMG. Amazingly, many of its fans will argue that it is not a 4×4 (even though it is one, and a very capable one, too). What they all agree on is that it is the ultimate chick magnet. I’ll stick to my Hilux, thanks. Even though I’m stopped by the Metro Police in Soweto on almost a daily basis. A Hilux with a roof-top tent and 35-inch mud terrain tyres does look somewhat out of place in the township, so it is often presumed suspect. A similar Hilux driving around in Pretoria East, for instance, would attract much less police action. It’s all about perceptions. Perceptions about what 4×4s really are, what they can do and who drives them. These are perceptions I will continue to challenge.

Tumelo Maketekete is an electrician by day, but an overland adventurer and outdoors enthusiast during any spare moment. Besides owning a custom Toyota Hilux KZ-TE double cab 4×4 that he plays with on off-road tracks, he has also created the Yihra Lam Farm on his smallholding in Randfontein. There he hosts activities like camping weekends and hikes, and he tutors kids in water conservation, fire safety and so on. His mission is to inspire youngsters to embrace a more outdoors lifestyle. Email [email protected] for more info.