Photos by Markus Gilliar for Mercedes-Benz

Meet the Guys Who Built a Skate Park in the Middle of a South African Township

The Indigo Youth Movement helps protect kids from violence and crime—with skateboards

With its gray concrete curves, rusting rails and graffitied walls, Kyle Trusky’s local skate park looks like any other urban hangout. But just a few years ago, this was a no-go area. Gangs walked the streets, gun shots sounded in the air and the ground was littered with drug paraphernalia.

“When I first started skating here things were really sketchy,” Trusky says. “I’ve seen kids as young as 8 or 9 doing drugs and smoking. We’ve heard guns going off. There isn’t a single kid here who hasn’t heard the sound of a gunshot.”

I met Trusky in his hometown of Kleinvlei, while visiting the area with South African sports charity Laureus. It’s less than an hour’s drive from Cape Town, but the surrounding townships are among the most deprived areas of the country.

In 2014 Cape Town was ranked by one NGO as Africa’s most dangerous city. Dubbed “apartheid’s dumping ground,” the Cape Flats were once ghettos for people forced out of the city center in the 1970s and ‘80s. Two decades later they’re still suffering the effects of poverty and social exclusion. Yet every weekday afternoon from 3:30 onward the dusty square is filled with local children strapping on knee pads and taking their first experimental wobbles on a skateboard.

Trusky, 21, is one of several young coaches working for the Indigo Youth Movement, a project that offers kids from 5 to 18 skateboarding lessons alongside community building and life skills. As he moves off to help lead a trust exercise, I turn to his fellow coach and project leader Charl Jensel.

Like his students, Jensel grew up in the area and understands exactly what the boys are up against when it comes to poverty and crime.

“Gangs look at recruiting youths at the ages of 13 or 14,” he explains during a break in teaching. “They become runners or involved in the drug world. I hear gunshots and I know that if the kids were not with me they would either be the ones shooting the gun or the one who had to hide the gun.”

I ask him about a story Trusky just told me, of a 16-year-old boy from a neighboring township who dropped out of skateboarding classes and was found dead of gunshot wounds a few days later.

“That opened the kids’ eyes,” Jensel says, nodding. “If you’re not part of this program you really could end up like that. It’s this or dead. It’s real.”

Behind us the kids form a conga line and, following the instructions of Kyle and the other young instructors, snake their way, blindfolded, around an obstacle course made of piled-up skateboards. On the wall of the community center next to the park someone has daubed the words “Peace, balance and love.”

The slogan that might sound trite to American ears, but here in the Cape Flats it’s a hopeful sign. Between April 2014 and March 2015 there were 17,805 murders and more than 50,000 sexual offenses in South Africa. The country has one of the biggest wealth divides in the world and is number 1 on the World Bank’s GINI index, which measures financial inequality.

“People round here don’t have an identity or purpose. They’re just surviving,” says Dallas Oberhalzer, who founded Indigo in Durban in 2002. “These areas around the Cape Flats are notorious gang areas, very high risk areas. But when kids are here in the skate park they’re engaged in an activity, they have something to focus on.”

Indigo’s Original Skate Park in Durban. Photos by Craig Scott.

Jensel agrees: “Skateboarding is cool. It’s that sense of freedom when you’re on your board, you can just forget about everything else.” And unlike most other sports, skateboarding doesn’t require much money. Indigo provides the boards and knee pads, and all lessons are free.

“You don’t need much infrastructure for skateboarding,” says Oberhalzer, gesturing to the concrete ledge we’re sitting on. “The beauty of a skate park is how indestructible it is.”

And skateboarding’s cool factor helps attract more kids. In 2010 Indigo got a visit from skating legend and Laureus ambassador Tony Hawk. And in 2013 Indigo alumnus Thalente Biyela moved to the U.S. to pursue a professional skating career. The aptly named (Thalente is both pronounced and means “talent”) teenager now lives in L.A. and was the subject of the 2015 documentary I Am Thalente.

Photos by Craig Scott

“We really like to try and instill at a young age that anyone can become a star,” says Oberhalzer. “We want to try and help them feel connected to something bigger through the family and the culture of skateboarding. We want to give children hope.”

Oberhalzer set up his first skateboarding project in 2001 in the rural mountains near Durban on South Africa’s eastern coast. In the local Zulu townships you’re more likely to share the dirt road with goats and chickens than cars. The skate camp offered activity holidays to city kids from Durban as a means of bringing in money to the poverty-stricken area.

Its success allowed Indigo to branch out into other parts of the country and seven years ago Oberhalzer recruited Jensel to lead the Cape Flats project after seeing him skating at a park in the city. The 28-year-old grew up locally and started skating at the age of 15 after dropping out of school.

“At that age I just wanted to be cool,” Jensel says. “And because skateboarding looked so cool, that’s how it attracted me. And I think that’s how it works for these kids.

“But then when I actually started skateboarding I started seeing things differently. It made me want to learn new things and better myself. So I went back to college and finished my matriculation. I got a job working at a skate park and that’s where Dallas found me.”

At first, he tells me, he wasn’t interested in working for the project but after Oberhalzer flew him out to Durban to see the progress they were making, he saw how he could use his own experience to help other young boys.

“Kids face the same issues I faced growing up,” he explains. “Lacking positive role models, dropping out of school, alcohol and drug abuse. In our society the only people kids have to look up to are gangsters. Kids are just looking for a gang to feel part of and skateboarding creates that for them. I realized this is what my community needs.”

In addition to the Durban project, Indigo works in three different areas around the Cape Flats. They are currently working on getting planning permission from the City of Cape Town to roll out more projects and recruit more leaders and coaches. They are also campaigning to have skateboarding recognized as an official sport which in turn will allow the South African government to help fund wages for the constructors who build the parks.

As Jensel heads off to wrap up the lesson, I notice a kid hovering nearby, one foot on his skateboard, one hand fidgeting with the brim of his baseball cap. I catch his eye and he smiles shyly.

“Can you do any tricks?” I ask him. He nods. “Oh really? Let’s see.”

He pops the tail of his skateboard to the ground before kicking it into a perfect 360-degree flip. As he lands squarely on top of it he grins proudly. “I told you!” he says, running off to join the rest of his class.

On the other side of the skate park Jensel is standing in the center of a circle of kids. He calls out: “How does Indigo help us be positive role models?” A handful of children tentatively raise their hands. “We learn how to respect and support each other,” offers one boy.

“Right!” says Jensel. “So hands up if you’re a positive role model.” This time every hand shoots up enthusiastically.