Artistic helmets to grab World Cup spotlight

GERMISTON, South Africa - The most eye-catching sight in the stands at next year's World Cup will be thousands of jiving fans wearing elaborate headgear invented by a former cleaner in his township shack.

While the incessant blare of "vuvuzela" trumpets stirred controversy during the Confederations Cup in June - a dress rehearsal for next year's tournament - it was the extraordinary helmets worn by the fans that grabbed the eye. The helmets, known as makarapas, are bound to stand out again in the globe's most watched event, giving unexpected fame to a humble invention.

Makarapas are made from the hard plastic hats worn by construction workers and range from simple painted designs to intricate stand-up cut-outs of players, teams or animals, often paired with giant mock spectacles.

Dancing fans wearing makarapas and making a noise like charging elephants on their vuvuzelas will be at the heart of the unique atmosphere that was such a selling point for Africa's first World Cup.

The makarapa was invented by Alfred Baloyi, 51, an unschooled municipal bus cleaner from northern Limpopo province who still lives in a dark concrete shack in a muddy township in Germiston, near Johannesburg.

Baloyi, a fanatical supporter of top South African team Kaizer Chiefs, says the makarapa was born when he saw a fellow fan hit on the head by a bottle thrown from the stands in 1979 and a construction worker friend gave him a helmet for protection at future matches.

Soon Baloyi, a talented natural artist, painted his helmet in the black and yellow of Kaizer Chiefs and then started taking orders, working in a cramped workshop at his home.

"First I was just painting them. Then as days went by I used to add horns, like goats' horns, and then I decided to start cutting and putting players on the helmets," he told Reuters.

"I am not from school, I am not educated. It is just a gift from God." The shack reeks of paint and Baloyi's workshop is packed with fantastical designs including a helmet dedicated to one womanising player with a half woman/half devil reclining on top.

Baloyi himself shows off his own huge headgear including giant nose and mouth with outsize teeth and a plastic guitar with music blaring from a car radio tape player tucked inside.

"ENEMY OF PLASTIC"

"I am the enemy of plastic," Baloyi jokes about the designs he cuts with a simple box knife. He is nicknamed "The Magistrate" and wears a robe to games. "They call me this because I sentence helmets to become something else," he said.

Baloyi's guitar is decorated with figures of a witch doctor, a scorpion and a monkey. Two mini-vuvuzelas protrude from the top of the helmet and a figure representing "the Magistrate" can be moved like a puppet at the end of the guitar.

Grant Nicholls, who runs a local sports marketing company, has gone into business with Baloyi and is looking for the best way to market the helmets and spread Baloyi's artistic gifts among other underprivileged South Africans.

Production is divided between a "signature range" which Baloyi crafts by hand, usually on commission, and a factory using machinery for simpler designs. Prices range from 120 rand ($15.50) to 300 rand ($38.50) and above for special designs.

"This guy is the most fantastic artist I have ever met. When he does his signature range makarapas, people just go 'Wow!'," Nicholls told Reuters.