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A maka-what?

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The French can leave their berets at home, the Germans won’t need to polish the old lederhosen up this year. Scottish kilts and Swiss cowbells will hold little sway at the 2010 Fifa World Cup, while Mexico’s swirling sombreros and Spain’s clacking castanets are so four years ago.

It is now South Africa’s turn, and what a turn it will be, with this year’s fashion item of choice being something spectacular, something wild and wonderful, something uniquely and very proudly South African: nothing less than a one-of-a-kind, custom-made Makarapa fan helmet

A maka-what? Well, South Africa has its own enthusiastic footie traditions which mean this year’s World Cup will be more fanciful, more fantastical than any seen to date, with Bafana Bafana zealots donning the distinctive pimped-out, painted hardhats known as Makarapa, then blowing their vuvuzelas, drowning out the competition like a herd of psychedelic elephants.

The splendid Makarapa – with their horns, giant sunglasses, slogans, and vibrant colours – are the crown of South African soccer celebrations, being eminently photogenic and so putting South African supporters literally in the picture in every newspaper in every soccer-mad country in the world.

They already shone at the Confederations Cup, where the Makarapa brigade were out in force, wearing their bright, intricately sculpted, gigantically bespectacled safety helmets in the front row, often with custom-painted overalls in Bafana Bafana colours too. But where did these crazy hats come from?

The Makarapa was the brainchild of Limpopo-born football fanatic Alfred Baloyi – aka Lux, aka The Professor, aka The Magistrate, aka ‚just dad‚ – a man with as many names as he has hats, and the greatest hat he ever wore was the original Makarapa helmet some 30 years ago.

For Kaizer Chief’s devotee Alfred it all started in 1979, when he was sitting in the cheap seats watching his beloved AmaKhosi playing Moroka Swallows at a Soweto soccer derby. As the match hotted up so did the exuberant mood of the supporters, and Alfred looked on in horror as a bottle flew from the upper echelons, smacking into the head of a fan below.

‚It was a dangerous place to be,‚ recalls Alfred, but he certainly wasn’t going to give up attending matches.

Instead, like Newton’s falling apple, that falling bottle spawned an idea, and young Alfred went back to his shack and got his hands on a construction safety helmet (happily in his team’s bright yellow colour) for future matches.

Necessity may be the mother of invention, but Alfred didn’t see why his ‚Makarapa helmet‚ – named after Johannesburg’s hardhat-wearing migrant miners – should be dull. The municipal bus cleaner had been arty at school, and here at last was an outlet for his talent. He set about transforming his helmet into something both life-saving and life-affirming, painting it with the Amakhosi logo and creating a colourful tribute to both his team and his good sense.

But even Alfred didn’t anticipate the delighted attention his Makarapa helmet would receive in the stands. He would keep his head at the matches that followed, but never his hat, as more and more fans approached him, amazed by his eye-catching headgear, begging to buy it right there, right off his head, and slowly his accidental business grew. ‚I sold them for R7 each,‚ he says, smiling at the memory.

With only primary school education and a growing family to support, Alfred learnt his business skills by listening to the demands of his customers. They loved the art, they were impressed by the practicality, and Alfred realised he was onto something far bigger than the buses he polished every day.

‚I am not educated,‚ he says quietly. ‚It was a gift from God.‚

So he quit his job, set up a small workshop in his home, and spent his days producing ever more amazing Makarapa, which he sold at stadiums and taxi ranks.

An original Baloyi Makarapa became unmissable at matches, as Alfred cut, curled, twisted, and shaped each new helmet into a remarkable 3D tribute to the team, resplendent with footballs, firebursts, flags, elephants, wings and even, memorably, a cut-out of Nelson Mandela.

His own vibrant soccer outfit is emblazoned with the word Magistrate, ‚because I’m the judge on plastic, sentencing it to a new life,‚ he laughs.

Over time he turned his attention to beautifying the loud, proud but decidedly plain vuvuzela too, and soccer matches would never be the same, as Alfred travelled far across the land to support his team and promote his helmets, always in full Makarapa regalia, resplendent with puppetry, guitar and boombox.

‚I call myself a soccer slave because I’ll always go where the game is,‚ he says.

Gradually, Baloyi’s Makarapas in the grandstands gained the attention of the media – as did raucous vuvuzelas, although sadly not for the same complimentary reasons – and are now capturing the imagination of the world. Makarapa helmets were presented in Switzerland when South Africa was named as 2010 World Cup host, and Fifa president Sepp Blatter was given a Makarapa helmet during an inspection tour of the country. Cricket and rugby fans are demanding Makarapas too, as are big-name corporate customers and tourist boards.

Yet, until March this year, Baloyi Makarapas were still crafted one-by-one at Alfred’s colourful, soccer-festooned shack in Ga-Makausi squatter camp in Germiston, helped by a team of jobbing artists, artists talented enough to have their art displayed at corporate exhibitions yet still battling to put bread on their own tables.

However, Alfred’s big idea has finally outgrown its small beginnings. Together with his long-time friend and ardent football fan, sports marketer and benefactor Grant Nicholls, Alfred has set up a the Baloyi Makarapa studio in Wynberg, Sandton, conveniently adjacent to a 2010 Fan Park, and providing employment for 50 people. Alfred has trained the artists and cutters himself because he’s passionate about creating employment, but he’s still hands-on himself, with his box cutters and his paintbrush – and his enormous imagination.

‚We’ve been astounded by the interest and by the size of orders we’re receiving so far,‚ tells Grant. ‚Yes, we are producing the original and have registered trademarks for both Makarapa and Baloyi Makarapa‚ . Makarapa Integrated Marketing has been registered of which Alfred is a shareholder. To maintain his legacy, we have also set up a family trust where royalties from all sales are accumulated. The first beneficiary is Alfred’s daughter Beauty, who is now in her second year at a reputable art school.

‚And we expect big things with the World Cup,‚ says Alfred, adding that they’re already making Makarapa helmets sporting the colours and badges of all the incoming international teams. Maybe the Swiss will have their cowbells yet…

Meanwhile Baloyi Makarapa are a hit on Facebook, he has a suitably colourful website at Makarapa.com, and he even takes online orders for original Baloyi Makarapas, some for as little as R250 each. Every order is custom made in our art centre by the many previously unemployed artists ‚ all under the guidance of their ‚master‚ , Baloyi.

Somewhere along the way, this former bus cleaner with little education and no training has become an international icon too, revered around the world, adored at home, and able to educate his children as he never was. To his delight, his oldest daughter now attends art college, ‚following in my footsteps‚ , he says, beaming with pride.

But Alfred still lives in his original cluttered shack, he still sits in the stadium at every football match he can wearing his own Makarapa, he still gets about by taxi, and the folk in the cheap seats still clammer for their own plastic crown, for their own original Baloyi Makarapa.

Alfred Baloyi, the man acknowledged as the creator of the Makarapa, offers a wide range of vibrant designs and even makes personalised Makarapa to order!

Every single Makarapa is handmade and painted! None of the work is mass produced.

Baloyi Makarapa are made in South Africa and Baloyi’s passion, talent and art continues to grow and create jobs.

This local product has become a symbol of national pride and team spirit.

Personalised Baloyi Makarapa are made to reflect you ‚ your personal passion, hobby, nationality, team, company, etc.

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