Surfing, the beach and lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic in South Africa

I recently had a chapter published on surfing during COVID times in South Africa. The chapter is titled: ‘Dreaming of “Level Free”: Lockdown and the Cultural Politics of Surfing during the COVID-19 Pandemic in South Africa‘ and is part of the volume Sport and Physical Culture in Global Pandemic Times: COVID Assemblages (Palgrave Macmillan, 2023) edited by David Andrews, Holly Thorpe and Joshua Newman. This collection draws on scholarly research from across the globe and “highlights the global and local inadequacies of the sporting/physical cultural order exposed by COVID-19.”

The abstract for my chapter (set out below) draws attention to my interest in tracing the cultural, social and political factors that shaped surfer attitudes to beach bans during the lockdown in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic in South Africa:

The South African government implemented a hard lockdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. One lockdown measure was a national beach ban which received national attention due to anti-lockdown protests at three beaches on May 5, 2020. In contextualising these beach protests within the period of March to August 2020, this chapter critically examines how surfing’s historical non-conformist values and ideas of freedom shaped surfer social attitudes in COVID times. Protesting surfers’ desire to return to the waves is read as the making of a politics of refusal. This refusal to acquiesce to the state’s regulations was the most visible response of surfers to the lockdown and shaped national tropes about surfer entitlement entangled with South African surfing’s history of whiteness and middle-class privilege. Refusalist responses, however, were contested within the South African surfing community as alternative configurations of the relationship between surfing and the lockdown were also expressed.

While my chapter is limited to the early to mid-2020 period, my original thoughts were to consider and compare those periods when a beach ban was in place due to lockdown rules for the 2020 and 2021 periods. I still hope to undertake that research, using this chapter here as a starting point. Another theme I was keen to explore further is the poetics of surfer responses to the beach bans as seen in artistic, cartoon and literary representations of the experience of surfing during lockdown.

Otelo Burning, freedom and surfing

In August 2013, cjac20.v026.i03.coverMeg 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).

Meg Samuelson, “Re-telling freedom in Otelo Burning: the beach, surf noir, and Bildung at the Lamontville pool.” (Free Access to the article).

Glen Thompson, “Otelo Burning and Zulu surfing histories.” (Open Access to the article).

Bhekizizwe Peterson, “Otelo Burning (dir. Sara Blecher, 2011).

Litheko Modisane, “Otelo Burning: On the turbulence of freedom.”

David Johnson, “Beyond tragedy: Otelo Burning and the limits of post-apartheid nationalism.”

Meg Samuelson and Glen Thompson, “Interview with Sara Blecher and Sihle Xaba: the making and meanings of Otelo Burning.”

OB dvd-cover

Transforming Surfer Boys in the New South Africa

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.