Why the makarapa will be this year's underground hit

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The Independent Online

So far it has been the vuvuzelas making all the noise in South Africa but it's another icon of local football culture that's been attracting the connoisseurs. Despite sounding like a bad latin dance, the makarapa is so much more than the sum of its parts – a plastic miner's hat and some paint.

It is the product of a moment of genius not unlike Isaac Newton's discovery of gravity. For Newton, the eureka moment came with an apple falling. For Alfred Baloyi, it came in Orlando stadium as he watched rival fans rain bottles on fellow Kaizer Chief fans.

"I saw the bottle hit someone on the head and I thought I should get a hard hat," he said. A dedicated Kaizer Chief fan from the Primrose squatters camp who made his living washing buses, he got one from a friend. He wore it to the next game and the makarapa was born.

Mr Baloyi, who always had an artistic streak, decided that his protective gear looked a bit drab so he decided to paint it in the colours of his beloved team: orange and black. Still not satisfied, he painted the team badge as well. It was an instant hit. "People wanted to buy the hat straight off my head," he recalls.

While rugby and cricket were the passions on the other side of the apartheid divide, football was the game of the black townships. In the mining heartland of Johannesburg thousands of men would turn out each week in their work overalls to watch the game.

Demand for the colourful headgear soon meant that Mr Baloyi was able to quit his job cleaning buses and become a full-time artist. Bored of only painting the helmets, he decided to experiment with cutting and bending the plastic into sculpted shapes. First up were fingers making the victory sign. After that everyone had their requests. "People were always asking for new things. Whatever the people wanted I made. The ideas come like this, the fans give you ideas."

It was two equally football-mad friends of his, "Saddam" and Mguyo, who came up with the other parts of South Africa's trinity of football paraphernalia – the vuvuzela and the giant sunglasses. The blaring horn which has divided opinion in advance of this World Cup is too much for Mr Baloyi. "To me the vuvuzela is too loud but the people like it," he says.

Now 53, the artist has become a trademark in his own right. The tin shack workshop in the squatter camp has been traded for a studio in the upmarket business district of Sandton. He has made makarapas for presidents, pop stars and even football's world governing body, Fifa. "It changed my life really," he says sitting on the step outside the Baloyi factory. "My children are good now. I built a house in Limpopo for my family."

And for a man who made his living hawking his creations from the roadside and travelling in mini-bus taxis, it has brought another change: "I got a car now, " he says with a broad smile.

While the Fifa president Sepp Blatter has been called many things – not all of them kind – Mr Baloyi is gushing in his praise. Wearing a helmet of his own creation he has a portrait of the sports bureaucrat as the centrepiece, with the legend Thabiso – which means "happiness" in isiZulu. "He is the one who decided to bring the World Cup. It has changed my life and – all the people in there," he says, gesturing at the studio , "it changed their lives. That's why I call him Thabiso."