Surf’s up in Cape Town’s poorest settlements
AUSTRALIAN surfers have long been regarded as cultural rebels, known for their carefree attitude and beach-bum clothing.
But in South Africa, non-profit organisation Waves for Change is building a new type of surf culture that is bringing hope to some of Cape Town’s poorest communities. The charity works with about 120 youngsters from two of the most notorious townships, Khayelitsha and Masiphumelele. Both started as black settlements built to house workers during the apartheid era, but since 1990 their populations have ballooned because of mass immigration.
Both settlements also are beset by the myriad issues facing South Africa’s poor communities, including drugs, crime, alcohol abuse and gangs. People in these townships are among the poorest in the country, with about two- thirds out of work. Severe poverty has bred brutal crime; at least one person is murdered and two raped in Khayelitsha every day, according to local police statistics.
Surfing offers a chance for young people here to build new support networks away from the perils of the streets. Waves for Change teaches them about surfing and uses the sport as a metaphor for life in the townships so kids can learn to avoid dangers such as drugs and gangs in the same way they would negotiate rocks and currents in the ocean.
Lessons are given by coaches — the first people from their townships to ride the waves — who also act as role models to help ensure the young surfers stay on track back in the community. Already their leadership is starting to make an impact.
‘‘I used to be a drug addict, my life was useless,’’ says Amkela Ndiki, a 16-year-old from Khayelitsha who has been struggling with addiction to tik, a street drug similar to crystal meth. ‘‘Now I know I will achieve my goals. Now I’m a surfer. I’ll never change my mind. Surfing helps me to solve my home problems and makes me forget about the pain I’ve been through.’’
There are few black surfers in South Africa. Despite the country’s wealth of stunning coastlines, watersports lack representation from its major ethnic group. That’s partly down to poor government investment in beach facilities or to promote these activities in schools. My survey of 35 people on the streets of Khayelitsha revealed that 64 per cent had never heard of surfing.
According to Waves for Change coach Ncedo Manensgela, it’s also because most people from the townships consider surfing to be a ‘‘white’’ sport and not relevant to their lives. ‘‘A lot of African people aren’t exposed to water sports. I think if we can promote the sport in our neighbourhood it will make a big difference,’’ he tells me.
But that surfing is so unknown, and seen as dangerous, also makes it particularly appealing to township kids. Most are rebels seeking a cause, trying to extricate themselves from violent gang culture and abusive homes.
The adrenalin rush from riding a wave is physically addictive and so keeps them coming back to the beach, where Waves for Change can instil its message.
According to Bongani Ndlovu, who co-founded the charity with British social entrepreneur Tim Conibear, Waves for Change is also playing a vital role in building a new African surf culture. Ndlovu says, ‘‘These are strong communities full of bright young people who will shape the future of our country. This is why surfing needs the townships — to turn the sport from an elitist pastime of one social group into something ingrained in South African culture.’’
Waves for Change is introducing surf culture to poor communities in South Africa