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Culture, Sport

New Kings of the Amagagasi

by Samora Chapman / 17.01.2014

It was all heat and madness as I headed down to the Durban beachfront for Kushay’igagasi (hit the waves), the only isiZulu surf contest in the country, on December 16 – National Day of Reconciliation.

Now the Durban beachfront is one of the most multicultural spaces on the planet… except on public holidays like December 16 when it truly becomes an African carnival, a fleshy feast of holiday hysteria. I navigated my way through the masses like a colonial interloper and had to fend off a few ‘guides’ looking to rescue me. Down at the beach, the competitors were already shredding the fun 2 ft waves as the emcee rapped a booming Zulu narrative over hard Afro-house beats.


The beach was lined with spectators, mesmerized by the Zulu surf gurus walking on water like Jesu. Young Ntando Msibi, the current under 16 KZN champ, was leagues ahead… tucking into little tubes and busting a couple flawless air reverses like Django unchained.

Ntando is an orphan who spent time living on the perilous streets of Durban before he found his way to Umthombo children’s home at just 11 years old. Umthombo introduced him to surfing and he has never looked back, proving to be one of the fiercest competitors in the country in his age division.

Ntando took first place in the open contest and pocketed a tasty R2k for his morning’s work. Joining him on the podium were Simo Mkhize in 2nd, Quinton Shabalala in 3rd and Sifiso Mhlongo in 4th.

The crew

After the contest, Afrosurfers (a surf school run by members of Surfers Not Street Children) gave a free surf clinic, whereby members of the public could ride their first wave like the Polynesian kings and queens of old.

Kushay’igagasi is an event that aims to celebrate a new generation of surfers from underprivileged backgrounds. You can’t underestimate the value of conducting an entire surf event in isiZulu; apart from giving the competitors the chance to take home some loot for the holidays, it frames a somewhat cliquey and elitist surf culture in a way that makes it inclusive to a much broader base of South Africans. Big ups to those that made the event happen: Mark Snowball, Bomb Surf, The Department of Sport and Recreation, Surfing South Africa, Cool Runnings Bar, The City of Durban, JonIvins.com, the Brand Brewery, O’Neill, Surfers Not Street Children and Afro Surfers Surf School.

If there could be any criticism levelled at Kushay’igagasi it is that it could be interpreted as a “Zulus Only” surf event. Which it’s not. Alas only one pale native surfer entered the contest… which is disappointing on a national day of reconciliation. But it also begs the question – how progressive is a surf contest that unintentionally perpetuates racial divisions? Or better yet, how do whiteys get involved in a Zulu surf event? The thing is, this is historically a development contest, and surfing has for the most part been the preserve of the privileged. Which means that most of the top competitive surfers in this country happen to be white. And if the best competitive surfers in Mzansi entered Kushay’igagasi, chances are they would they walk away with all the loot, which is certainly not the aim here. So there’s still a major gap between development and top flight surfing and the organisers of Kushay’igagasi need to figure out how to involve the general South African surf audience with the aim of nourishing and supporting an inclusive, broad-based, grass roots surf culture. I guess it’s a work in progress.

Game face

Tom Hewitt, founder of Umthombo and Director of Surfers Not Street Children explains: “All contestants in year one were former street children. That was the criteria. This is still the criteria but we had a certain number of spaces for invites, in order to broaden the event. Surfing South Africa entered some guys from South Beach and a few lifeguards, who have all come through development surfing.”

Xhosa teacher and activist Craig Makhosi Charnock from Ubuntu Bridge hit the nail on the head with this statement: “My initial thought was: an event in Zulu, where white surfers would be exposed to the taal, and have to struggle with comprehension is a nice reversal of what Zulu folk have to grow up with in all walks of life. What a great token of respect and effort in the name of Madiba’s rainbow nation. But then I realized that by making this a Zulu language event, it had somehow also become a ‘Zulu’ or ‘black’ event. So to achieve a higher level social effect, I would suggest an emphasis on learning of basic Zulu by the non-Zulu participants for the next contest, so that non-Zulu surfers can come and learn some Zulu and lend their support to the event, even if it means that they don’t participate in the actual surfing. Perhaps you can introduce an umlungu category, which only has booby or joke prizes like suntan cream! As their Zulu grows, so will the surfing skill of the young Zulu surfers, and over time, all things balance.”

Ntando ripping

There is no straightforward solution, as is often the case with complex issues. But John McCarthy, Editor of Bomb Surf and the contest organiser, agrees that a balance needs to be struck by creating a more inclusive event, which still stays true to the developmental roots on which it was founded.

“Moving forward it would be cool to have surfers of all colours competing/participating but to keep the commentary in Zulu. This would have to be balanced carefully with how the development and pro divisions are structured to ensure that the original ethos of the event is not overrun by the typical mercenary characteristics of most other pro surfing events.”

Hopefully a more inclusive event might entice support from the rest of the surf industry and appease the cynics in us all. And who knows, we might have a Zulu world champion just waiting to spread his wings.

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*All images © Samora Chapman.

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