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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

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.

Surf film: Zulu Surf Riders (2008)

Surf film: Zulu Surf Riders (2008)

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).

Southern Cape SUP session May 2010

Spike from Wavescape asked me how I got into SUP. Below is my response that I emailed to him:

“Earlier last year (around April or May 2007) I came across an article in The Surfer’s Journal (Vol. 15 No. 6, 2007) on stand-up paddle boarding by Todd Bradley entitled “Upright: The Revival of Beachboy-Style Surfing. I was intrigued: it tweaked my historical sensibility to explore a new way of interacting with the ocean while reconnecting to a wave-riding practice from Hawai’ian surfing’s yesteryear.

While the modern SUP boards are shaped more like a tandem surfboard, it also reminded me of the late 1930s and 1940s Crocker Ski that Baron Stander Snr had on display in the Timewarp Surfing Museum in Durban – an unwieldy beast of a board, more like a door wrapped in canvas, tapered to a point up front and a two-sided paddle tied to the front deck of the board. How those guys rode waves with them still boggles me; not to mention taking a South Beach breaker on the head …

Needless to say I wanted to know more: I started to read up more about SUP online, and downloaded a few YouTube video clips. I got an idea of the dimensions of a board and was now determined to try it myself.

I had two notions of what SUP would mean for me: as I hate going to a gym and prefer outdoors activities, I could keep fit and in the water during flat days by paddling the Atlantic Seaboard; I could also take it out on small days when my longboard would struggle; but it was the lure of actually taking it out into larger surf – a point or reef break preferably as getting out through insistent beachbreak looked tough.

I hadn’t seen anyone stand-up paddle boarding in the Cape Town surrounds (although I do recall seeing a paddleskier once stand up with paddle in hand in Durban in my teenage beach days). I wondered how the sport would relocate to the wetsuited climate of chilly Cape Town waters.

The price of importing a SUP from the USA was beyond my means so I made some enquires in May at some local surf shops. I came up against: “well, we don’t have a template for it” or “the blanks are too small, we’d have to import them” or “we’re thinking about it, but there isn’t enough demand really.” I eventually chatted to Volker at Surf ‘n Sport in Cape Town in June. I had some dimensions and a shape in mind for the SUP and he contacted Spider Murphy, SA’s top shaper based in Durban – and someone who has shaped many of my surfboards since I was a grom lurking in the shorebreak of Durban’s Addington Beach in the early 1980s.

Spider agreed, even though he had not tackled shaping a SUP before, and we had a few chats about what I lwas ooking for in the board – just paddling or do I want to surf waves? We agreed on aircraft carrier dimensions – 11′ in length, 29″ wide and 4’ thick with a slight diamond tail and triple stringers – using the usual surfboard non-environmentally-friendly materials (note to self: there are alternatives, must investigate) -. Sport ‘n Surf arrange for a paddle to be made fand brought down from Dakine’s factory in the Eastern Cape. I was in for a couple grand in all.

When the board arrived, I was gob-smacked at how big it actually was. A longboard is long, sure, but a SUP is a beast of board. How was I to pick this thing up with giving myself a hernia? Thankfully no hernia appeared as I got it onto my little Fiat Palio’s roof racks and then into the sea for its first outing.

Session #1: Late October was in slightly cross-shore Muizenberg was a whole new learning curve. I got to backline on my knees after floundering trying to stand up in the inshore ripples. I did catch a wave that day, it was a small foamy, but I felt the turning potential of using the paddle to steer the board. I was hooked … and exhausted after dragging myself and board back the few metres up the beach.

I had no real reference point besides the digital images: no coach, no mentor, in my late 30s I returned to gromhood with trepidation. I have now met or heard of a few Cape Town guys who had got into the sport – some of the Kommetjie crew were paddle surfing across the way from Long Beach; Reinhardt Fourie of Dakine, the first to ride SUP in SA who had pointed out a useful “how to” DVD, and Ivan van Vuuren “veteran” SA SUP’er recently returned from Hawaii; and there a few more SUP had been sighted more regularly in Muizenberg, Camps Bay and the Bloubergstrand waters of Cape Town.

I have had several more forays into the Cape Town waters – traversing Camps Bay beach or looking for some small Atlantic surf in wind-sheltered coves. I am getting the hang of paddling into a wave standing face forward to the beach, using the single blade to paddle with stokes alternating on the left and right to build momentum, and then switch feet into a surfing pose. It is this and the fact that you paddle from dead stop just in front of a swell and then drop into the wave standing up that makes SUP so different from surfing a shortboard where you paddle in lying down and then jump to your feet. On the SUP your perspective of depth and the ledge you are going over is completely different – it’s like taking a skateboard down a half-pipe, except here you are standing midway along a very long ironing board. But when you slide into the wave, shift weight to the back of the board, paddle in hand, dragging a watery arc into setting up for a down-the-line ride that the beauty of stand-up paddle surfing becomes sublime.

My best moments are being out in the water just as the sun has set, stroking into an Altantic wave reflecting the pink-orange hues of a day fading to twilight.

So in summary: a past surfing style reborn using modern surfboard materials, rekindling my surfing stoke by taking in the waves from a new vantage point, stand-up paddle boarding is a superlative surfie experience.

See Steve Pike’s article on “What’s SUP?” from the Sunday Argus, 13 January 2008 on Wavescape. The Weekend Argus, 12 January also carried a piece on Stand-up paddle surfing.

[Text originally posted on my old blog on January 29, 2008.]