Surfing is the Glueby Andy Davis / Images by Luke Daniel / 03.12.2013
Fear is something that we as South African surfers, perhaps, are a little more accustomed to. Our sport, by it’s nature can be a frightening thing. Paddling out when it’s big is scary. So are sharks. And freak surf injuries can prey on your mind. But these things are all ubiquitous to the surfing world. What makes South African surfers more in tune with our base chakra is that we live in a deeply divided and unequal society, fractured by a history of violence, repression and inequality stretching back 400 years, that frequently manifests, these days, as violent crime. We literally learn to function in a heightened state of vigilance and paranoia, which has it’s root in an emotion we know most commonly as fear. Which brings us neatly to the urban sprawl of the Cape Flats ghettos.
“There are a lot of criminals in Khayelitsha.” Says Mcgyver while he slowly points out his wounds, a series of scabs and scars on the side of his head.
Mcgyver is the head surf coach at Khayelitsha’s first surf club, Waves for Change, at Monwabisi, a derelict apartheid era pavillion where Khayelitsha meets the False Bay. He was mugged about a week ago, in between our excursions to check out what’s happening at one of South Africa’s most crucial surf outreach programs.
Khayelitsha is a rough neighbourhood by South African standards. Not just a scary place for mlungus like me to visit, but also a frequently dangerous place for the people who actually have to live there. On our very first visit, the plan was to escourt the kids from Esangweni Secondary School in the unimiginatively named Town 3, Khayelitsha, the 3 kilometers through the township, down through the dunes to the beach. As the school bell rang, a gang turf war erupted on an open field just beyond the school’s gates. We huddled together with the kids inside the parking lot, waiting for the gangsters to finish up threatening and pelting rocks at each other.
“How often does this happen?” I asked.
“Every week. Maybe once or twice a week.” Answered Kanyile, Waves for Change’s first female coach.
“I think when the school comes out, it’s just like a challenge.” Mcgyver explained. “Like, tonight we’re going to fight. Often when we’re coming back from the beach at around half past 5 they’ve started fighting properly. A real fight. Knives and guns and stones.”
Eventually the volleys subsided and we ducked out the school yard and took a backroad through rows of RDP houses, before cutting through the dunes and finally reaching the safety of the beach.
“Every time we’ve had a journalist at the beach, something has always happened.” Says Tim Conibear, the British guy who founded Waves for Change.
“When Zigzag last came here there was a body.”
“What?” I ask.
“Yeah, Clayton Truscott came to the beach with us and he’s chatting to me and he looks over my shoulder and goes: ‘What’s that?’ And he’s like, ‘is that like a pair of legs?’ And there was a pair of legs sticking out from behind this pile of rocks at the beach. Some kid that had been smashed up by the gangs and just dumped there.”
“Come.” Says Mcgyver, breaking the empty silence. “Let’s go surfing.”
And we start the walk from the Waves for Change compound down through the old collapsing Monwabisi pavillion to the sea.
“What happened to you when you got mugged?” I ask Mcgyver, picking up the old conversation as we walk.
“Ah man I was always aware of those guys. I would always try to avoid them, but this time it was bad luck. I was walking in front and I didn’t think they could do something in that road in front of all the people.”
“Why did they pick on you?”
“Eish, I don’t know. Maybe I can say that it was just my day to get robbed. I didn’t have a phone that day, but I had money. I was going to the centre to buy some stuff for my house, because I was busy building my house, my shack.”
“How much money?”
“Two hundred and something. Because I was going to buy some ceiling for inside, at the hardware.”
“Do you think they knew you had money?”
“No, it was just unlucky. Unlucky for me.”
“So what happened?”
“The first time they just hang on my neck like this, like we friends. Then I tried to say, ‘no man!’ And we started fighting. And the other guy came and took my legs and they just took me out of the way. Four of them. I was kicking and fighting. I tred to bite them and then I saw something hit me and kwah! I think I lost my mind. Because I was just… when I woke up, I was just asking, ‘what’s happening? What did I do?’
“And they were talking that time, saying ‘kill this bastard!’ And I was just asking for sorry. Sorry. Because I did fight. That time when they tried to rob me, I struggled. You’re not supposed to struggle when the gangsters do that thing. You know? If they want money, you must just give them money. They will kill you just to teach the others a lesson.”
“And then what happened?”
“I don’t know, I only woke up when other people came to help me to stand up. It was hectic. Those people tried to help me but I was so lost in my head. I was knocked badly.”
“Did you know any of these guys?”
“Maybe one of them. I think. There are a lot of criminals in Khayelitsha.” He repeats the refrain and looks far out to sea.
“When I was young I loved to just swim far out to sea.” He says. “We used to come here in 2003, me and my friends, to swim, but we couldn’t. Then this other lifeguard, Anele, he came to us and said guys, there’s a swimming pool, why don’t you learn to swim properly. So we’d come there at 5 o’clock from Monday to Friday. After I knew how to swim, I started to compete, doing open water swims and biathlons for Province. And we did some competitions for the lifesaving and I decided to get qualified, because our instructor was a lifeguard so he wanted us to be lifeguards too.”
“Then you met Tim and became a surf coach at Waves for Change?”
“Ja, now I’m working full time at Waves for Change but I still lifeguard in summer. You can make good money lifesaving, but they close the beaches in winter, so I’m just sitting down for months. Then Waves for Change came along.”
“Where does your name Macgyver come from?”
“From my father. It’s a nickname.”
“What’s your real name?”
“No ways.” I say incredulous.
“Yes!” He smiles. “And my surname Ngeyake means ‘mine’. So Monwabisi is mine!”
And with that, the king of Monwabisi walks into the middle of the circle of kids and begins today’s program. It’s an activity all about resisting peer pressure and finding support from your friends in the community.
“McGyver kind of personifies what we’re trying to achieve here.” Says Tim. “You want role models from the community, working within the community.”
We look up and watch a group of kids take off on a big set wave, they all ride it straight till it closes out, then laugh, turn their boards around and paddle back for another one.
“So Waves for Change is not really about finding the next Kelly Slater?” I laugh.
“No.” Says Tim. “If the whole program focuses on developing surfing excellence, it encourages kids to see it as a way out, so they start reflecting the community as a place they don’t want to be, which impacts on the way you see your community and the people who live in it. We’ve got this thing called ‘bananas’, it comes from the ‘shaka’. Here they think it looks like a banana. And bananas is like our talisman, it means: protect, respect, communicate. That’s the basis of of our culture. In the first two months we discuss what it is to be bananas, what it is to protect each other, respect each other and communicate with each other. Now these kids take it back to their community and they see their community as a broken place that they can actually fix. So as opposed to thinking, ‘oh, I live in a horrible place, I’m getting out of here.’ They think, ‘actually there’s a lot to be said about where I live and I can go do something about it.’ We don’t want to tell these kids: ‘You live in a shithole, get out of it!’ We want them to see that there’s some really cool stuff happening here and we want them to be part of it… And bananas is basically our attempt to align the early surf culture at Monwabisi with supportive and positive connotations.”
From the higher ground; the wine farms and manicured streets of Stellenbosch, the hipster confluences of Long and Kloof Street or the rarified environs of Constantia, Bishopscourt, the Southern Suburbs and Noordhoek, the image of Khayelitsha is that of an amorphous, dark and dangerous place where bad news comes from and returns to, like a boomerang of endless negativity. A violent, dusty, hopeless township that never sleeps and only ever expands, ominously gnawing at both our consciences and fuelling our paranoia. Few understand the complexity of the myriad issues and influences that give this place its bad reputation. Fewer still are willing to engage, to get involved and see how they can help.
And then you meet Lwandile, Guffy, Litha, Khanyile and a whole bunch of surf stoked teenagers splashing about in the shifty close-outs of Monwabisi with the same pure joy you once had as a grom, your eyes flushed with salt water and the ocean connecting you to everything that matters in the entire world. Waves for Change are building strong communities through surfing. And this kind of direct and thoughtful engagement with the issues and situations we once thought were insurmountable, is the very antidote to our fear.
“Surfing is just the glue.” Says Tim with a smile.
* Images © Luke Daniel