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I presented a research in progress paper entitled “From Femlins to Saltwater Girls: Sport, Lifestyle and Femininities in South African Surfing Culture, c.1965 to the present” at the Stellenbosch History Department Seminar Series on Wednesday, 24 April 2013. This paper was then presented on Saturday, 29 June 2013 at the 2013 Southern African Historical Society Conference held in Gaborone, Botswana. This working paper forms part of my doctoral study on gender and politics in the history of South African surfing culture.

A further iteration of this paper was presented at the Institute for Humanities in Africa (HUMA) at the University of Cape on Thursday, 28 August 2014. This work in progress paper was titled: From Femlins to Saltwater Girls: Surfer Girls and Lifestyle Sport Consumption in South African surfing magazines, 1965 – present.

Summary of the paper

Liquid Girls Surfing magazine, cover of March 2006 issue.

Liquid Girls Surfing Magazine, cover of March 2006 issue.

This paper seeks to make visible the histories of women’s surfing in South Africa as a counterpoint to the persistent discourse that the sport of surfing is a male activity. It attempts a pro-feminist, new cultural history reading of the surfing archive taking into consideration both textual and visual sources to recover the representations, voices, experiences and agency of girls and women who surfed or continue to surf in Cape Town, Durban or elsewhere along the South African coastline from the mid-1960s to the present. This paper seeks to document how South African surfing femininities negotiated complicity within the gender order or, through a surfing identity, challenged the gendered nature of power in society and within surfing culture itself. It explores both the local and global iterations of surfing femininities as shaped by or shaping cultural, social and commercial processes. In particular, the role of surf magazine advertising is examined for how it maintained a youthful, sexy, athletic yet objectified heterosexual image of the “surfer girl” over several decades. In locating this study within the study of hegemonic femininities in southern Africa this paper explores the complexities of gender relations in the social construction of femininities: how these femininities were themselves historically contingent, fluid and contested by girls and women who surfed, constructed in relation to men in the surf and on the beach, located in relation to a discourse of a femininised ocean, and socially differentiated based on the culture of beach leisure and access to leisure time, sporting prowess, the nature of sportisation through organised sport, and the consumptive ethic of a beauty culture associated with the emergence and consolidation of surfwear as mainstream fashion. In short, in reflecting on the role of gender and lifestyle in South African surfing history, the conditions for the emergence in South Africa in the 1990s of the global phenomenon of the “Surfer Girl”, with its Californian and Australian roots, is considered within the context of the democractisation of South African society. Yet, this history also illustrates some of the limits of social and cultural change at the beach as women’s surfing in South Africa has largely remained a white sporting activity, despite the promise of change in the prominent roles of black girl surfers in the Hollywood DVD Blue Crush 2 (2011), set in KwaZulu-Natal and the eastern coastline, and the locally produced Amaza (2013) television series filmed in Muizenberg, Cape Town.

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I presenting a paper on how black surfers have been represented in South Africa’s surfing print magazines since 1990 at the Work/Force: South African Masculinities in the Media Conference  held at Stellenbosch University on 13th & 14th September 2012.

Summary of the paper
The idea of the “surfer boy” in the South African surfing imaginary is no longer primarily white, male and youthful although Zigzag (since 1976) and thebombsurf (since 2008) surf magazines continue to maintain that white, heterosexual hegemony within their textual and visual representations supported by surf industry advertising expenditure. Nor is surfing nostalgically looking back to the halcyon days of the Californian inspired Sixties and Seventies. Rather, through grassroots initiatives, surfing development programmes linked to organised surfing, and pressure from the national sport ministry, that same surf media and several surf movies are constructing the idea of surfing in Mzansi (the South) at established and emergent surfing centres along the South African coastline, such as at Durban, Mzumbe, Port St Johns Jeffreys Bay and Muizenberg, where black male surfers and white girl surfers are visible. In many ways it is the new possibility of these postcolonial surfing sites that have provided the greatest challenge to the historically white and male South African surfing imaginary and opens up possibilities for new male identities and gender relations on the post-apartheid beach and, through sporting and recreational practices, in the surf. This does not mean that the surf media is not without producing social tensions in what is said and not said (and what is seen and unseen) about race and gender. The former surfaces as race trouble in negotiating new identities that attempt to masked social fractures within surf culture. The latter shows fissures in the production of a white South African surfing masculinity historically used to supporting its dominance in society through a sporting practice. In these ways, the South African surf media provides a useful lens to critically explore competing masculinities within a marginal aquatic sporting tradition that point to social transformations on the beach in the years after apartheid.

For more information on the conference: Work/Force: South African Masculinities in the Media Conference.

This paper is part of my ongoing work for my doctoral studies focusing on gender and politics in the history of South African surfing culture.

It’s a sad state of affairs when the one’s thoughts has continued through many months not to document a word. Does that lessen the fact that I have been studying surfing’s history at all as participant and observer? I hope not but I do feel that “the writing interregum” as a period within a research process is now shifting from contemplation to thesis writing output.

Coming later in life to this doctoral study with my own sense of nostalgia for a youth surfing past, I’ve pondered why – and been asked the same question by others on numerous occasions – this historical project on gender and politics in South African surfing culture.  A short answer would be: an interrogation of my past as a surfer and an attempt to understand, over time, the agency of other surfers in periods structured by the experience of apartheid and interwoven by the gender order to frame social relations and identities.

If I look at my published writings to date on surfing, only the latest of these on how the international sports boycott against apartheid shaped competition surfing in South Africa begins to take a broader time period into account. My other pieces have been more focused on key founding moment in South African surfing’s sports history – the inaugural South Africa National Surfriding Championships in 1966 and the emergence of Shaun Tomson as an exemplar male surf icon in the late 1970s. Both pieces analysed how a hegemonic masculinity around competitive surfing was constructed and maintained. The writing on gender and surfing however goes far beyond its masculinist pretenses, and as I work through material from the 1950s through to the 1990s I am finding evidence for shifting masculine and feminine identites over time, and even with periods.

Here the 1960s have become a fascination for me and I am currently working on conference paper, for the forthcoming Southern African Historical Society Conference in Durban, to think through how global surfing can provide a lens to look at how local black and white surfers could turn to California and Hawai’i for new configurations of social identity under apartheid. This brings the theme of gender and politics together in a manner that I have only hinted at in past papers.

Pondering this theme has also been much of the reason (beside other distractions, including spending time in the water surfing for leisure or sport) why the interregnum has dragged on for some months. Looking at the surf studies forecast, there’s a swell of writing to come …