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Soweto goes Beetle crazy

2005-12-28 12:17

E Krueger

The resilient bug is enjoying something of a renaissance in the cape, its popularity powered by a new generation of motorists who have elevated the humble VW to the status of a cult object.

"In recent years, the Beetle has become ever more popular in South Africa's most famous township," reported the local Saturday Star newspaper in a story headlined 'Soweto's New Style Icon'.

The same article coined a new local nickname - "Khunkwane" - for the car, using Sesotho, one of South Africa's 11 languages.

Even though South African production of the VW Beetle stopped in January 1979 after a quarter of a century, the curved cars with their easily recognizable silhouettes now transport black and white alike.

Affordable prices, a cute look and the car's usefulness in business all contribute to the newfound respect for the rusty oldie.

"One can assume that 60 000 of the 288 000 Beetles that were produced here are still on the streets," said John Lemon, a retired businessman from Port Elizabeth and a walking archive when it comes to automobile mythology.

At the moment he is working on a book about South Africa's Beetle history with Volkswagen's support. "You run into a VW bug every four or five kilometres on all the main streets of South Africa," says Lemon, who owns one of the classic cars himself.

Mathatha Tsedu, the chief editor of the newspaper <i>City Press</i> even wrote a hymn of praise for his 30-year-old second car. The car teaches him humility behind the steering wheel, says Tsedu, but also makes him an object of envy.

"A relative gave me his 2005 Mercedes E270 while he used my bug for two weeks. My son reported that he's always the centre of conversation when he drives up with his beetle," reported Tsedu.

Many of the cars driving around South Africa are still originals. Of course, completely overhauled used cars are very much in demand.

Ken Maggatt of the 'Beetle Buddies' firm styles himself as the 'Beetle King' of South Africa. He began refurbishing old VW Beetles with parts from Mexico 15 years ago. About 3 000 renovated bugs later, he knows his business inside and out.

"I have a monthly output of 22 bugs," he says proudly. Production was been halted in Mexico last year, but replacement parts are still delivered. "My clients are old and young, black and white, rich and poor. This car is a 'Volkswagen' (People's Car) in the truest sense of the word."

A completely rebuilt beetle coasts about R39 000 to R47 000 from Maggatt. That's more than the R6 000 that Beverley Sekonyane, 23, of Soweto paid for her 30-year-oldie, but still well below the base price for another successful model from VW, the original Golf model, which is still produced successfully on the cape.

Even the bug's stylish successor, the New Beetle, has managed to ride the coattails of its sympathetic favourite. It has become especially popular as a trendy car among the young black elite.

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