AMPED: The Waves For Change Khayelitsha surfing contest at Monwabisi Beach was the first contest the surfers had entered, and many of the parents watched their children surfing for the first time, says the writer.

Glen Thompson

HISTORY was made on Saturdaywhen the

Waves for Change Khayelitsha surfing contest

was held at Monwabisi Beach on the

northern shores of False Bay. A twist of

geography, history and a surfing development

programme for black youth had led

to this historic moment.

It looked much like any other amateur

surf contest. A Surfing South Africabranded

gazebo above the surf zone was

the judges’ podium and the epicentre of

the event, sponsors’ flags dotted the beach,

and loudspeakers pushed out house beats.

Yet this was not a “Big Surfing” happening

but a community initiative. The commentary

by surf coach and co-founder of

Waves for Change, Apish Tshetsha, was in

Xhosa, it was the first contest the surfers

had entered, and many of the parents and

community leaders on the beach were witnessing

their children surfing for the first

time.

The event was run by Isiqalo’s Waves

for Change programme, a youth development

NGO working with at-risk communities

from coastal townships. It was a celebration

of the one-year anniversary of

their Khayelitsha programme working

with schools to provide pupils with HIV

awareness and youth leadership development.

Surfing is offered as an alternative

to the street and gangsterism.

The surf contest was run as a tag-team

format, de-emphasising the competitive

individualism of surfing. Two teams of

five Monwabisi (“Monwa”) surfers from

Khayelitsha competed against two teams

from Masiphumelele (“Masi”). The Masi

surfers were from the Waves for Change

Masiphumelele programme and surf at

Muizenberg.

The judging rules worked to score

surfers irrespective of their ability – many

of the surfers had been surfing for a year

or less – and saw two surfers at a time enter

the surf to catch two waves within six minutes.

Once they had caught their waves,

they exited the surf to tag the next team

member. The two teams with the top accumulated

scores then surfed off in the final

for the trophy. The contest was won by the

Monwa A team over Masi A team, showing

that local knowledge of surf conditions

was an advantage.

In the surf, news and social media, this

contest was overshadowed by other surfing

contests held on the same day. The

Billabong Junior Series at Long Beach and

the Xpression Wave Classic at Muizenberg

offered the surfing community examples

of mainstream shortboard surfing and the

newer SUP surfing. A surfing development

contest at a more remote Cape Town beach

was off the radar.

It may be that black surfing is less surprising

today because many black surfers

are seen in the Cape Town waves, in contests

and in the surf media, compared with

the 1980s and 1990s when surfing was

regarded as a white (and male) sport. This

was because of the racial segregation of

beaches under apartheid and the years of

transition when surfing remained outside

South Africa’s sports transformation focus

on soccer, cricket and rugby.

Despite a long history in Cape Town

dating to the 1960s, as well as links between

surfing and the struggle for non-racial

sports during apartheid through surfing

clubs and surfing development programmes

in the 1990s and 2000s, it was

through the film documentaries of bigwave

surfer Cass Collier, Taking Back the

Waves (2005) and longboarder Kwezi Qika,

Black People Don’t Swim (2008), and then

the feature film Otelo Burning (2011), that

local black surfing began to shift mainstream

local surf culture away from the

whiteness of its Californian roots (despite

Hawaii being the birthplace of surfing).

The history of surfing in Cape Town is

one factor pushing this Khayelitsha event

to the margins; another is its historical

geography. Monwabisi Beach is located

across the sand dunes from Khayelitsha’s

Kuyasa community. It is about 20km east

along Baden Powell Drive from the popular

Surfers’ Corner at Muizenberg.

The iconic Endless Summer film scene

of surfers running over pristine sand

dunes to discover perfect waves is not what

is to be found when arriving at Monwabisi.

Expectations of a place to escape from the

city into the waves are dashed by the

reminder of apartheid’s past and our postapartheid

present. The sandy beach to the

east is broken by sandstone outcrops and

a cliff to the west. A rocky breakwater

offers a small wave, reforming along an

inshore sandbank with an incoming tide.

Despite its proximity to Cape Town’s

southern suburbs, Monwabisi is not a

Cape Town surfing destination – the waves

of the southern peninsula or Muizenberg

are preferred.

Today, Monwabisi remains underserviced,

bordering the urban sprawl and the

sea, its amenities aimed at the working

class. The pavilion was dilapidated and the

tidal pool empty of children swimming at

the weekend. In winter the beach is quiet,

unlike peak season when thousands of

people visit the beach over New Year.

The Monwabisi Beach resort was built

in 1986 as a recreational facility for African

and coloured residents of Khayelitsha and

Mitchells Plain during the latter days of

beach apartheid. Beach apartheid ended

formally in November 1989, predating the

repeal of the Reservation of Separate

Amenities Act in 1990, although its social

effects persisted into the years of transition

as racialised practices at the beach

and in the surf.

One legacy is that the political stigma of

beach apartheid has acted as a cultural

deterrent to going to the beach for many of

the older generation. It is within this history

of exclusion that cultural mythologies

have perpetuated into the present in

African township communities, where the

ocean is seen as a place of threat and not

play.

Yet leisured play was central to the

design of Monwabisi as a beach resort in

the apartheid years. The tidal pool, pavilion

and public amenities provided a space

for safe swimming and picnicking, while

the beach itself remained dangerous for

ocean bathing. The Monwabisi Lifesaving

Club was established in 1987 to provide

beach safety for bathers.

In the early 1990s, in an attempt to

reduce the tidal pool’s exposure to wave

action and backwash, a rock breakwater

was built. While seemingly creating a

safer beach, the opposite occurred, resulting

in rip currents generated by the longitudinal

drift that have led to numerous

drownings.

Beach safety was top of mind for City of

Cape Town officials from 2005 to 2009 when

the Shark Spotter programme was run by

the lifesavers at Monwabisi Beach during

the busy summer season. While resourcing

constraints led to the closing of the initial

Shark Spotter programme at the

beach, a call by Waves for Change led to the

reinstating of the Shark Spotters programme

in December 2012 operated by

spotters who came through the Waves for

Change surf coach programme.

Despite efforts over the years by the

City of Cape Town, Monwabisi Beach

remains an underutilised amenity catering

for the local community.

William Finnegan in Crossing the Line,

his 1982 memoir of living, teaching and

surfing in Cape Town during the antiapartheid

education boycotts, had the following

to say of the change in South

Africa: “In a situation like South Africa’s,

history is no lifeless palimpsest; it is the

chart of possibilities.” For surfers in

Khayelitsha the “chart of possibilities”

took time to be realised and it is this surf

contest that offers a view of the possibilities

of surfing as a vehicle for social

change at the post-apartheid beach. In

Xhosa monwabisi means “bringing joy”,

which seems to equate to what surfers call

being “stoked” after surfing. It was this joy

that I observed among the surfers at Monwabisi

Beach that Saturday.

. Thompson is a PhD candidate in history

at Stellenbosch University researching

gender and politics in the history of South

African surfing culture.

He is a keen surfer.

His blog is at writingsurfinghistory.org.za.

For more on Waves for Change, see wavesforchange.org