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 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.