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.
On 22 August 2019 I interviewed Melissa Volker about her eco-romance Shadow Flicker (Karavan Press, 2019) at Xpression on the Beach, Muizenberg. The novel is set in contemporary Cape St Francis, where the female protagonist returns to surfing. The novel addresses environmental issues relating to the development wind energy farms in the area.
This is one of few literary outputs in South Africa to foreground surfing within the novel’s plot and frame main characters as surfers (or where the authors are surfers themselves). I am aware of a handful of novels and short-stories in English which also do so, namely: Hagen Engler’s Life’s A Beach (1997) and Water Features (1998) (autobiographical fiction, short stories) and Robin Auld’s Tightlines (2000) (beat fiction), Byron Loker’s New Swell (2006) (autobiographical fiction, short stories), Mike Nicol’s Of Cops and Robbers (2013) (crime fiction), and Mary Duncan’s Surfing Sally (2010) (illustrated children’s fiction). Andy Mason’s (aka N.D. Mazin) The Legend of Blue Mamba (2013) (graphic novel) brings this literature into conversation with the world of underground comix.
I am aware of Afrikaans youth fiction too, specifically Mary-Ann van Rensburg’s ‘n Reënboog oor Grootbaai (1995) and Jeanette Morton’s Die Vlinder en die Surfer (2012).
There are also fictional short stories published in local surf magazines since the 1960s.
There is published poetry too that adds to the literature featuring surfing, for example, Robin Auld’s “Between the Storms” and “Reef” in his Kelp (2006) and Stephen Symons’ “Death of a Surfer” and “Muizenberg” in his Questions for the Sea (2016).
It may be time to start compiling an authoritative account of South African “surflit”. Inspiration for this can be drawn from the innovative work undertaken for the Waves of Fiction: Surfing in Australian Literature project led by scholar Rebecca Olive. The aim of the project is to be “able to follow the various threads of surfing that weave through Australian literature [that] will deepen our understanding of how surfing has shaped our relationships to beaches, coastlines and oceans, and how surfing has contributed to a sense of being Australian.”
I have a chapter published in a study that focuses on how sex/es, gender/s and sexuality/ies have shaped and re-shape surfing culture. The book, edited by lisahunter, is Surfing, Sex, Genders and Sexualities, (London and New York: Routledge, 2018), covers surfing’s pasts and its present. My historical chapter is titled: “A tale of two surf contests: Gender, sex and competitive surfing in South Africa during the late 1970s and early 1990s.”
In summary, the chapter historicises two surf contests as formative moments in South African amateur surfing during apartheid and as South Africa began its transition to a democracy. The 1978 South African Surfing Championships illustrated the consolidation of surfing’s patriocolonial whiteness at a time when local amateur surfing was under pressure from the international boycott of apartheid sport and the ascendancy of professional surfing. The 1992 Wella for Women’s Surfing Contest was the first women’s only surf event in the country and foregrounded the representation and the ongoing struggle for recognition of female white surfers within a male dominated sporting arena as South Africa transitioned towards democracy and global surf brands began commercialising women’s surfing. These surf contests open up how political and socio-cultural events shaped surfing, how patriarchy was produced within local organised surfing, and how the intersectionality of gender, sex, and race is crucial in tracing the changing social construction of competitive surfing identities in South Africa.
As set out in the overview of book, Surfing, Sex, Genders and Sexualities “crosses new theoretical, empirical and methodological boundaries by exploring themes and issues such as indigenous histories, exploitation, the marginalized, race, ethnicity, disability, counter cultures, transgressions and queering. Offering original insights into surfing’s symbolism, postcolonialism, patriocolonial whiteness and heteronormativity, its chapters are connected by a collective aspiration to document sex/es, gender/s and sexuality/ies as they are shaped by surfing and, importantly, as they re-shape the many, possibly previously unknown, worlds of surfing”
lisahunter’s introduction to the book outlines this field of study and points to future directions in scholar-activist engagements in and with surf culture. The introduction is available here – click on “preview PDF”.
In a chapter titled “Pushing under the Whitewash: Revisiting the Making of South Africa’s Surfing Sixties” in Dexter Zavalza Hough-Snee and Alexander Sotelo Eastman (eds), The Critical Surf Studies Reader, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017), I explores the making of the South African surfing lifestyle in Sixties.
The chapter historicizes how surfing in South Africa was raced, gendered and shaped by transnational surf culture. The socio-cultural determinations of racial exclusion and male privilege are examined through the intersectionality of a tanned whiteness fashioned through beach apartheid, lifestyle consumption and an imported “California dreaming.” In revisiting South African surfing’s emergence in the years from 1959 to 1968, this chapter seeks to push under the whitewash of that period and point to the persistence in the present of South African surfing’s founding mythologies.
From book’s blurb – “The Critical Surf Studies Reader brings together eighteen interdisciplinary essays that explore surfing’s history and development as a practice embedded in complex and sometimes oppositional social, political, economic, and cultural relations. Refocusing the history and culture of surfing, this volume pays particular attention to reclaiming the roles that women, indigenous peoples, and people of color have played in surfing.”
The introduction to the volume by Hough-Snee and Eastman, which provides a historiographic overview of surfing studies, can be downloaded here.
My review essay “Disturbed Waters: New Currents in the History of Water Sport,” Radical History Review 125, (May 2016) appeared in a special issue of the journal edited by Peter Alegi and Brenda Elsey, focusing on the theme of “Historicizing the Politics and Pleasure of Sport”.
I review studies on swimming and surfing history which open up new perspectives on the relationship between politics, culture, and gender. The books under review are:
Lisa Bier, Fighting the Current: The Rise of American Women’s Swimming, 1870 – 1926, (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011).
Scott Laderman, Empire in Waves: A Political History of Surfing, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014).
Isaiah Helekunihi Walker, Waves of Resistance: Surfing and History in Twentieth-Century Hawai‘i, (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2011).
These water sports can be seen historically as political and determined by local, national, and global conditions. Each study historicizes the politics of aquatic pleasure. Bier’s Fighting the Current foregrounds American women’s swimming challenge to the social order. Walker’s Waves of Resistance looks to the contested nature of the surf zone in reclaiming Hawaiian surfing “traditions” and masculinities marginalized by Western cultural appropriation. Laderman’s Empire in Waves documents the Americanization of surfing, how it expanded globally as a politically ambiguous cultural practice, and carried with it the seeds of US imperialism.
Alegi and Elsey’s introduction to this sports history issue of the journal can be downloaded from here.
“Me and My Board” was a discussion session hosted by the 2016 Open Book Festival in Cape Town on Saturday, 10 September 2016. The panel included: Capetonian big-wave surfer and SUP adventurer Chris Bertis, with his autobiographical account of his 2010 Mavericks Big Wave Invitational win in Stoked! (Zebra Press, 2015), and Andy Martin, University of Cambridge French literature and philosophy academic and surfer with his Stealing the Wave (Bloomsbury, 2008), subtitled “the epic struggle between Ken Bradshaw and Mark Foo”, about their big wave surfing rivalry in the 1980s and 1990s. I was asked to chair the session.
The session was captured by surfer, SUP’er and writer Melissa Volker for Wavescape.co.za as “Talk About Waves“, noting who else came to listen: “It was as much a weird blend of academia and aloha on stage as it was in the audience. There was a mix of readers who surf (or surfers who read?) and literati, those bookworms and mind surfers who never have (and never will) get on a surfboard.” Read the full article, with photographs and the podcast of the session (it runs for about 1 hour).
Among her reflections, Melissa captured the contradiction of speaking about a big-wave brotherhood that emerged during the conversation – it “does not refer to gender, but rather to the connection with people in the ocean” (Bertish) and “strikes a patriarchal note” (Martin). These views are poles apart, the former an example of a hegemonic surfing masculinity at work and the latter a pro-feminist reading of surfing’s male domination. This raised the question of naming women surfers as girls from the a member of the audience, and my reply that in surfing culture the representation of the “surfer girl” has a history of subordinating women surfers to the male surfing imaginary. However, while that cultural history is acknowledged, some recent third-wave feminist sports scholars have seen girl surfers as advocates of stealth feminism empowering women as athletes within the sport of surfing. It was here that the “Me and My Board” session connected with the broader currents within contemporary surfing culture and its changing gender order – pointing to the continued need to interrogate why we create myths out of big wave surfing and how those myths reinforce the masculine within surfing and society.
The Beyond the BeachExhibition opened opposite from the waves at Muizenberg’s Surfer’s Corner at the Casa Labia Gallery on Sunday, 21 September and ran to 21 October 2014. Curated by Paul Weinberg, the exhibition features several photographers whose work re-imagined the beach and shoreline of False Bay as space for ways of seeing the fluidity of identities, emotions, spaces and aesthetics associated, evoked or juxtaposed to the “beach” as place and concept. I was invited to participate in the exhibition and create an art installation that critically explored South African surfing histories (see note below for more details).
A note on the “Fragments of Surfing Pasts” art installation
Surfing pasts becomes somewhat knowable through traces, found fragments providing a view of what happens beyond the beach in the waves. This art installation was a reflexive review of my place within my studies of South African surfing history. Part summation of my doctoral dissertation in History (the exhibition run during the final month of my writing up of my dissertation), part visual representation of some of the key sources and themes informing that historical study, this installation was a becoming for me as a surfer and historian, a space for me to speak as a cultural practitioner to my interpretations of the beach and surfing’s historical place therein. The selections from the magazines on display come from independent South African surfing magazines no longer in print, South African Surfer (1965-68), Offshore (1987-89), and Liquid Girls (2005-6), or in the case of Amaza (2012 – ), currently in print but not widely available. All found a publishing home in Cape Town; South African Surfer moved from Durban for its last issue. The earlier magazines folded due to market pressures, Amaza is published by Waves for Change, a local non-profit organisation that uses surfing for leadership training and social development for at-risk youth from Masiphumelele and Khayelitsha townships in Cape Town. Each magazine reflects turning points in South African surfing history and points to the shaping of the diversity of surfing identities in the present. South African Surfer provides a record of the Sixties surf boom in the longboard era, Offshore reported on non-racial surfing under apartheid, Liquid Girls made girl and women surfers visible in a market over-determined as youthful males, and Amaza brings to the fore the lives of black surfers and emergence of township surfing. Framing the surf magazines, the broken surfboard speaks of the how the shortboard is no longer the only way of finding pleasure when riding waves. It was provided by Share the Stoke Foundation South Africa, which repairs and re-deploys surfboards into local surfing development programmes. This surfboard was beyond repair and was last used at the Surfshack Surf Outreach Project in Muizenberg. The wooden Alaia Needle surfboard, shaped by Muizenberg based WAWA Wooden Surfboards, guides the chronology of the installation, from the Sixties to the present. It also references surfing’s precolonial Hawaiian past, that surfing has traveled the globe in the modern era, and gestures to the future of surfboard shaping in seeking alternative and environmentally-friendly materials to surfboards made out of petrochemical based epoxy, polystyrene, polyester and polyurethane products. The UCT documentary film, Berg Boys (2013), brings Muizenberg into focus as a space for passing on surfing styles and know-how from a surf coach to a young grom in keeping the surfing stoke alive. The film brings to the fore the role of surf tourism in providing employment to black surfers and provides a view of how surfing keeps youth off the streets and in the waves.
My installation shared a room with Sandy Worm’s portraits of some of Muizenberg’s black surfers, titled: Black People Don’t Surf. The details of this photographic project, and the others that were on display at the Beyond the Beach Exhibition are detailed in the catalogue archived on the Casa Labia Gallery website.
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).
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
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.