Shaun Tom­son shares his code with KZN schools

Surf­ing leg­end Shaun Tom­son has turned a per­sonal tragedy into a cam­paign to help young peo­ple make the right choices in life. LINDA LONGHURST spoke to him


MANY teenagers in the eight­ies would have had a poster of a young Dur­ban surfer on their bed­room walls and the name Shaun Tom­son would have been syn­ony­mous with sun­bleached hair, bronzed bod­ies and waxed surf boards.

Born in 1955, Tom­son be­gan surf­ing at the age of 10, trained by his fa­ther. At the age of 12, he won the boys’ di­vi­sion of the South African Na­tional Cham­pi­onships. He dom­i­nated the South African surf­ing scene and in 1973, he won the first of six con­sec­u­tive ti­tles in the Gun­ston 500, held in Dur­ban.

His win in the 1975 Pipe­line Masters on the North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii, was re­mark­able in that he in­flu­enced and changed the style of surf­ing from then on. In 1977, he won the cov­eted IPS World Cham­pi­onship and has been listed as one of the 25 most in­flu­en­tial surfers of the century and one of the 10 great­est surfers of all time.

A grad­u­ate of the Univer­sity of KwaZulu-­Natal and founder of the In­stinct cloth­ing line, Tom­son now lives in Santa Bar­bara, Cal­i­for­nia, with his wife Carla and young son, Luke. But that’s not where his story ends. Tom­son, in­flu­enced by an un­speak­able tragedy, his back­ground and his en­vi­ron­ment, was re­cently in South Africa for his #livethe­code tour.

Dur­ing this tour, he spoke to school pupils about the power of “I will”, sup­ported by a tool called The Code, which is also the ti­tle of his book, on which his tour is based and dur­ing which it was launched.

“The goal of this tour is to cre­ate a pos­i­tive wave across the coun­try. This means giv­ing pupils a per­spec­tive of my life that’s been lived with passion and pur­pose,” Tom­son said. He hopes that the pupils he speaks to will find some res­o­nance in what he has to say.

“I give them as much of my spirit as I can, be­cause I know that there’s go­ing to be one child who needs it and if I can ac­ti­vate some per­sonal power in one pupil then my mis­sion is ful­filled.”

To ac­ti­vate this, Tom­son gives them a tool called The Code. This is a sim­ple ex­er­cise that is ide­ally done in a group set­ting and con­sists of 12 lines. Ev­ery line be­gins with “I will …” to be filled in. These are 12 prom­ises that you make your­self; a code that you live by.

“So far ev­ery school I’ve been to is do­ing it in var­i­ous ways. Ev­ery sin­gle pupil will write his or her code in 30 min­utes. In a group set­ting, each pupil will stand up and share his or her code with peers and friends. The group chooses one line from each per­son that is par­tic­u­larly res­o­nant with all of them. That goes up on a board, which rep­re­sents the col­lec­tive con­scious­ness and the will of the group,” Tom­son said.

“I tell kids that will is the rocket fuel that takes us from our dreams to re­al­ity.” The con­cept of The Code started in 2000 on a beach in Santa Bar­bara, Cal­i­for­nia, which was fac­ing a se­vere en­vi­ron­men­tal cri­sis. A surf­ing friend was hold­ing an event to en­cour­age home­own­ers along the beach to up­date their ageing sep­tic tank sys­tems, which were con­tam­i­nat­ing the wa­ter with sewage dur­ing the win­ter rains. He asked Tom­son to present each child at the event with a keep­sake to en­cour­age them to be more en­vi­ron­men­tally aware. “I had a bud­get of $120,” Tom­son said.

Tom­son wrote out the 12 most im­por­tant lessons that surf­ing had taught him about life, each one be­gin­ning with “I will”. He ti­tled the lessons “The Surfer’s Code” and had them printed on 100 palm­size cards that he lam­i­nated and handed out to the chil­dren at the event. The cards proved so pop­u­lar, that peo­ple started ask­ing him for more and he was asked to give talks at var­i­ous schools and gath­er­ings about the life lessons surf­ing had taught him. The cards’ reach in­creased when they started putting them in the pock­ets of the board shorts of their cloth­ing line, Soli­tude.

Tom­son’s first book, Surfer’s Code, was the cul­mi­na­tion of these talks. His sec­ond book, The Code, was in­spired by a group of pupils at a school in Santa Bar­bara. They were the first group of pupils he en­cour­aged to write their own code.

“The pupils from this school sent me their lines of code — 80 pupils, 960 lines — and I was blown away.” The first one he got back said: “I will al­ways be my­self”, which is the head­ing of the first chap­ter of his book. Tom­son said that this par­tic­u­lar line of code was par­tic­u­larly res­o­nant with him in his quest to cre­ate a pos­i­tive wave, on which peo­ple can in­flu­ence each other in a pos­i­tive way.

“I lost my beau­ti­ful boy at 15 to a bad de­ci­sion. He was in­flu­enced by some­one [to be­have reck­lessly]. That’s why this con­cept ‘I’ll be my­self ’ is su­per po­tent for me. I want to em­power kids to help them­selves. I tell kids that we all have this su­per pow­er­ful in­ter­nal force which they can use for good or bad — it’s a choice.”

Made up of 12 chap­ters, each ti­tled by a line of code from a pupil, Tom­son said that The Code is specif­i­cally aimed at teenagers be­cause they are at crit­i­cal age in mak­ing those de­ci­sions. He said that in the U.S., 45 000 teenagers die a year, and 30 000 of those deaths are from poor choices in the form of pre­ventable ac­ci­dents. Poor choice is the sin­gle big­gest killer in the U.S., in­clud­ing bad diet, lack of ex­er­cise, al­co­hol, drugs, gang ac­tiv­ity and drunken driv­ing.

“Ul­ti­mately, it’s a choice. This code em­pow­ers pos­i­tive choice.”

When he speaks to a group of young­sters, Tom­son tells them that “a choice made in a sec­ond can be life or death. What if your mom or dad are not there, you may be with a friend who’s not re­ally a friend and you have to think quick, make that de­ci­sion that could be life or death?” In re­sponse, he makes them shout: “Think twice, think twice!”

Tom­son said: “I never want an­other par­ent to get the phone call I did.

“I want kids to write down their code,” Tom­son said. “I can go and talk at a school, but once I leave, what I’ve said is just blown away in the wind.” He feels that if they have to spend some time be­ing in­tro­spec­tive, writ­ing down what is im­por­tant to them, it has a bet­ter chance of guid­ing them to make pos­i­tive de­ci­sions.

Pupils from all over the U.S. where he’s spo­ken send Tom­son T­shirts and posters that have been de­signed using lines of code. There are web­sites where young peo­ple can post their thoughts and where they can find in­struc­tions on how to for­mu­late their code, which they can do via writ­ing, video or art work “any way they want. It’s a way for them to in­ter­act and be in­spired by oth­ers, which is the whole goal”, he said.

Dur­ing his tour of South Africa, Tom­son reached 20 000 pupils, speak­ing at up to four schools a day. In the Mid­lands he spoke at Michael­house, Hil­ton Col­lege and Mar­itzburg Col­lege.

Tom­son was in­spired by the prin­ci­pals and teach­ers he met across the school spec­trum — from un­der­priv­i­leged schools to the most af­flu­ent. “The teach­ers and prin­ci­pals are in­spired, self­less and empowered; they just need more re­sources.”

Tom­son is con­vinced that ed­u­ca­tion is the fu­ture of this coun­try.

“For­get about nuclear power plants,” he said. “Put that money into the kids, pump ed­u­ca­tion to the max­i­mum, be­cause they will cre­ate amaz­ing things. The kids will make South Africa amaz­ing.”

While Tom­son has spo­ken many times at in­di­vid­ual schools in the U.S., as well as at large cor­po­ra­tions, his tour of South African schools is the first time that it’s been an or­ches­trated na­tional move­ment. He has been in­spired by how he was re­ceived here by teach­ers, prin­ci­pals and school chil­dren, and hopes that his tour of South Africa will be a plat­form from which he can cre­ate a pos­i­tive wave that he can spread wher­ever he goes. Tom­son hopes the schools will com­mit to his con­cept of cre­at­ing a code and that they will con­tinue to en­cour­age their pupils to cre­ate their codes, dis­play them and share them on so­cial me­dia.

“I still carry my own card,” he said, tak­ing it out of his wal­let and show­ing it to me. “Peo­ple come up to me and show me that orig­i­nal code that I wrote 17 years ago. I tell them to write their own code.”

Former Dur­ban surfer Shaun Tom­son spoke at Mar­itzburg Col­lege re­cently, among other schools in the Mid­lands and around South Africa.


Shaun Tom­son, the world cham­pion surfer.

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