On 4 February 2020, Phemelo Motene, host of SAfm‘s show “Life Happens”, interviewed me on the writing the history of surfing in South Africa and some of the key social history themes I focus on.
We chatted about surfing’s past in South Africa since WW2 as well as the changing representations of surfing in South Africa today, including a focus on the role of black surfers and female surfers in shaping today’s wavescape. We discussed how surfing development programmes add value to the lives of black surfers, the emerging commercialisation of township surf culture, and surfing’s involvement in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. We also covered about my research method of participating in surf contests.
You can listen to the full interview here (listening time: 17min 48sec).
This interview was conducted a month before COVID-19 arrived on South Africa’s shores so there is no reference to the impact on COVID-19 on the South African surfing community – a topic I will post on in due course.
In August 2013, Meg Samuelson and I collaborated on an interdisciplinary project that considered the contemporary politics, shifting poetics and invoked pasts in the film Otelo Burning (2011), an isiZulu language film that uses surfing to pose questions about personal and political freedom during the demise of apartheid (1988-1990).
An outcome of the project was the publication of several essays and an interview with Sara Blecher (producer, director) and Sihle Xaba (actor, surfer) in the Contemporary Conversations section of the Journal of African Cultural Studies, Volume 26, Number 3, September 2014.
Contemporary Conversations: Otelo Burning
Meg Samuelson and Glen Thompson, “Introduction.” (Free Access to the article, which includes audio-visual supplementary material relating to the film and its reception).
I presented a research in progress paper entitled “Transforming Surfer Boys: A Cultural History of Zulu Surfers in South Africa, 1965 to 2013” in the panel on Conflict and Leisure at the Historical Association of South Africa (HASA) Biennial Conference in Durban on Friday, 27 June 2014. This working paper on black surfing histories in South African forms part of my doctoral study on gender and politics in the history of South African surfing culture.
Summary of the paper
A cultural history of black surfing disrupts the whiteness, but not the masculine ethos, of surfing in South Africa. For Durban, two films have foregrounded Zulu surfers, the feature film Otelo Burning (2011) and documentary film Kushaya Igagasi (2013), translated as “Hitting the Waves”. In seeking to contextualise these contemporary formations of youthful black, male surfing subjectivities, this paper sets out a genealogy of Zulu surfers in surfing magazines, surf industry advertising and films featuring surfing (surf films, documentaries and feature films) from 1965 to the present. These sources provide an archive for a postcolonial reading of established (mediated, commercialised and organised) surfing culture’s appropriation of Zuluness during years of beach apartheid to affirm white surfing’s cultural distinction and difference in terms of race, class and gender. In the post-apartheid era, a discourse of surfing development and national sports transformation re-shaped views of Zulu surfers from that of athletic tokenism to social inclusion in the waves. Nevertheless, race trouble (the presistance of racial inequality in the everyday despite a discourse of tolerance) and contested masculinities at the beach have remained a persistence of the past. From the early 1990s, the voices of Zulu surfers in KwaZulu Natal can also be found in the surfing archive. A changing cultural politics has made possible an agency for Zulu surfers to accommodate, subvert or re-appropriate established surfing’s representations of “the surfer”. While this self-fashioning may be driven by a desire for social mobility, they have emerged, especially in the 2000s, out of clubs or social development programmes, inclusion within surf teams, brand sponsorship and media attention. The Africanisation of South African surfing culture, expressed at times as township surfing culture, is addressed by exploring the local and global processes of surfing lifestyle consumption among Zulu surfers in Mzansi (the South).