22 July 2024 | 04:32 AM

Riding with the Sopranos

Key Takeaways

9:05am. A pair of burly Afrikaners in two-tone khaki shirts and testicle-tight shorts sit facing one another, munching on their breakfasts at the local Steers.

All is as it should be on a sleepy Saturday morning, just off the N3 highway, in Edenvale, Johannesburg.

Then a primal roar shatters suburbia.

The Sopranos have arrived — a laughing, shouting, high-fiving torrent of black leather, bandanas and bling flows around the two astonished khaki islands in their midst.

These bikers aren’t the ‘tache, tattoo and mullet kind.

They are dressed to kill, in their white club colours and club-issue leather jackets.

On their backs, the Sopranos’ riding names are emblazoned above the club crest — a snorting iron horse.

A grinning “De Sniper” even wears a black bow tie.

Symbol: Members of the Sopranos wear their colours proudly.

The three women — “Mimilicious”, “Amazon” and “Brutally Sexy” — are immaculately made up, wearing elegant scarves and sporting lacquered nails.

“The Supt” introduces himself as Mpho Letsie.

Tearing the corners off five sugar sachets and tipping them one after the other into his giant mug of coffee, he tells me about the Sopranos club ethos.

I half listen, my eyes drawn to his left wrist. If Letsie’s watch was any bigger, you could have fried his eggs and bacon on it.

“We are all working professionals and we pride ourselves on our professionalism,” he says.

“You’ll see it in the way we ride. We’re disciplined and we stick together.”

Signs: Riders use hand signals to keep in formation on the road.

10:15am. Every ride begins with an address by Sopranos’ president Moraka “Pablo Juice” Mokoka, a Pretoria-based attorney who co-founded the club in 2007.

He is one of the club’s older riders — he drafted its constitution and sits on the club selection and disciplinary committees.

He presides over 45 club members, who include doctors, lawyers, media practitioners, engineers, businessmen, civil servants, a member of the VIP Protection Unit and a deputy metro police chief.

There are three requirements for Sopranos membership: you must be at least 25 years old, a person of substance, and have at least an 800cc cruiser — the slower, heavier model of motorbike, including Harley Davidsons and Suzuki Boulevards.

The Sopranos membership is also entirely black although this is incidental.

Rules of the road: ‘We pride ourselves on our professionalism … We’re disciplined and we stick together’.

10:25am. The Sopranos ride out with a tinnitus-inducing bellow, forming a staggered zigzag of bikes riding in two columns.

No matter how long the journey or how busy the road, this formation is sacrosanct and must be kept intact.

Mokoka (a stickler for decorum) hoots and wags a gloved finger at riders who are not perfectly positioned.

Tebello “Vino” Modiko, the club captain, leads the pack. Using hand signals, he tells the riders behind him what to do next.

Thabo “T-Man” Mathebula is the sweeper, an outlying rider who shields the others by blocking oncoming traffic at an intersection or holding open an adjacent lane.

At the first sight of an obstacle ahead, Modiko flaps both arms down by his sides.

Each biker follows suit and the column slows down, flapping like a flock of migratory birds.

At a stop street, Mathebula races ahead to secure it.

Modiko raises a clenched fist. Clenched fists sprout up one by one as the signal is relayed down the line.

A roadworker in a luminous reflector vest flashes the black-power salute back at us.

The column comes to a stop.

Modiko’s left arm goes up over his head, and points right.

The column sets off on the right-hand turn. Modiko makes a V-sign, flips his wrist and changes lanes.

The signal is passed down the line and everyone follows.

Biker heaven: A powerful bike and the open road.

Wherever the Sopranos go, their sinuous synchronisation turns heads.

“The bikes create a hype. You can’t ignore us,” says Sidikwe “His Royal Blackness” Motsiri — which is why the Sopranos have become the star attraction at ANC political rallies.

Some are party members.

In 2007, a number of them took their bikes to an ANC rally in Pretoria, making such an impression that since then the invitations have not stopped flowing in.

Motsiri says that the ANC likes to associate itself with the Sopranos’ brand of discipline and self-made success: “It’s about the type of bikes, how we ride and how we behave.”

Apparently President Jacob Zuma is a Sopranos fan and they have accompanied him on at least two campaign rallies.

Power: ‘Brutally Sexy’ was the first woman member of the Sopranos.

10:45am. We pull into the only black-owned Harley Davidson franchise in Africa, co-founded last year in Boksburg by bikers Sean Shipalana and Aubrey Mkhabela.

The idea was to “tap into the emerging, upwardly mobile black market”, says the loquacious Shipalana.

An entry-level Harley, such as the nimble Sportster Nightster, costs about R100 000, and a top-of-the range Fatboy Special costs three times as much.

Then there are the hundreds of add-ons to customise your bike: hand grips, floorboards, saddle-bags, long-stem mirrors, foot pegs, handlebars, fuel caps and chrome bolt-covers.

And that’s before you’ve bought the safety gear, the branded clothing, the jewellery — or had your bike serviced every 8 000 kilometres.

If you let your credit card off its leash, you could be staring at a bill for hundreds of thousands of rands.

But Zenzo “Zee” Nkomo, general manager of a listed mining company, says the benefits of biking outweigh the costs.

“It’s about being one of the boys, seeing new places, networking.”

Serge “Msechos” Moleko, who owns a fleet of minibus taxis, says: “You wouldn’t believe it but biking is cheaper than playing golf every weekend.”

Charity drive: The Sopranos support a Round Table Christmas event.

12:30pm. I’m riding pillion on railway engineer Mphela “Nyaks” Maepa’s sky-blue Harley, doing 140km/h in the fast lane, halfway down the Sopranos formation.

Nyaks is the most experienced biker in the Sopranos, having ridden semi-competitively since the late 1980s.

As he rides, he bops to the music that blares, somewhat disconcertingly, from two speakers pressed up against my buttocks.

Cosseted in a bubble of sound, I feel the wind in my face and smell the occasional blast of petrol-infused heat pulsing off the tarmac.

2:15pm. A thousand underprivileged kids have gathered on a bumpy sports field in Roodepoort for the annual “White Christmas” party organised by Round Table.

The Sopranos have stopped here, by prior arrangement, to spread some Christmas cheer.

The club prides itself on its charity work and supports good causes as far afield as Gaborone and Maseru.

“Poverty and hunger know no colour,” Motsiri says.

“We took a collective decision that, as privileged individuals, we should give back to those less fortunate than us.”

A mixture of curiosity and apprehension is etched on little faces as the Sopranos line the cruisers up and, revving their engines, create bike music — the ability to make their engines sing is how the Sopranos got their name.

The kids line up and take turns to ride with one of the bikers.

Leader of the pack: Club captain Tebello ‘Vino’ Modiko.

4:00pm. We relax at a table in the dappled shade outside a Soweto tavern.

Club secretary Mimi “Mimilicious” Makhaluza shows me a 8cm scar on her right ankle, the result of an accident when she was still learning to ride.

“Accidents happen often, and we bury a biker every now and then,” Makhaluza says.

An accident left a club founder-member permanently wheelchair-bound.

Another two died within a week of each other in December 2009 — the result of a drink-driving accident and a case of high jinks.

“Boys will be boys,” she says wryly.

Photos by Madelene Cronjé

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The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism, a non-profit initiative to develop investigative journalism in the public interest, produced this story. All views are ours. See www.amabhungane.co.za for all our stories, activities and sources of funding.

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Before joining the amaBhungane team in 2017, Micah was the national coordinator for media freedom and diversity at the Right2Know Campaign. He holds a Masters in African Studies from Oxford University and a BA Honours in History from Wits University.

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