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Lifeguard Khanyisa is in her element surfing the waves

Khanyisa Mngqibisa finds freedom in the ocean. REINHARDT

Khanyisa Mngqibisa finds freedom in the ocean. REINHARDT

Published May 14, 2022


Cape Town - Through a body of work that challenges the stigmas of belonging, Khanyisa Mngqibisa is finding freedom in the ocean.

Growing up in Khayelitsha, the internationally trained lifeguard and surfing coach fell in love with the ocean at the age of 10, and as soon as she immersed herself in it, her passion began to drift towards her lifeguard and surfing journey.

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“My family is originally from Lady Frere in the Eastern Cape. My passion for swimming started when I was 10, in primary school. We had to go for swimming lessons at every Life Orientation class. I can say today, if it wasn’t for the school I went to as a child, I wouldn’t be the person I am today. It all started there. The passion for surfing started the first time I stood up on the surfboard. It was a good feeling, I felt that I’m in my own world where I’m in control.

“One of my favourite highlights from my passion for the ocean is seeing more black people taking part in a sport they may once have thought was not for them. When the community sees a surfer who is black and a girl, coming from the same disadvantaged community as they are, the perception changes that surfing is for only white or rich people.

“In our community we face a lot of challenges – gender-based violence, poverty, drug abuse, and teenage pregnancy. When the youth I train surf with their peers, it gives them a sense of belonging, self-confidence and purpose. I want my community to feel motivated and encouraged to free themselves from negativity, and go to any beach and enjoy nature, just as I do. When I started surfing, with the support of my mother, I changed. I wasn’t the same Khanyisa as before,” said Mngqibisa.

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Internationally trained lifeguard and surfing coach, Khanyisa Mngqibisa. REINHARDT

The local production of “Free Surfer”, a digital video series featuring South African surfers, was directed by Kyla Philanders, who said that since the film had so many moving components, she in particular found the experience of making the film “therapeutic”.

“Film-making has so many moving parts to it… The beauty of all these moments culminates in a story. I fell in love with and was so moved by the character, and I think that it can be seen in the work.

“The experience of making this film was particularly healing… I’ve always been preoccupied with the visual of black people at the ocean. Apartheid did not only impact our access to land, but to the ocean as well. To be able to depict these stories of defiance, of taking up space on land and in the water felt really important,” said Philander.

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With hopes of wanting to start her own young, black girls surfing programme, Mngqibisa said she hopes the film would encourage young black people to make the most of opportunities that are available to them.

Khanyisa Mngqibisa in her element. REINHARDT

“The Corona ‘Free Surfer’ film is an inspiration and motivation to all young African people, especially young women who believe that surfing/swimming is only for white people. After seeing the film, they will hopefully change their perception, because the truth is in the same black woman, coming from the same disadvantaged community, making the most of the opportunity given.

“I hope this film also shows how we are surrounded by opportunities and how we can make the best of it and how these opportunities need to be voiced. I hope this film reminds them that we are ‘free’ and we have access to surfing or swimming, and to enjoy the beautiful nature around us and on any beach that we feel like going to.

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“Society thinks that no black person can make it in surfing, because you need a coach which you have to pay and surfing gear with a surfboard which is very expensive. They are not aware that besides surfing schools, there are organisation that offer free surfing lessons with all the equipment.

“Things have changed in our communities… We as surfers from a disadvantage community, need to spread the word and be the change agents in our communities. We must do community outreach to create surfing awareness through #NoStereotype against black surfers,” said Mngqibisa.

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