Finding hope on a surfboard

Finding hope on a surfboard

Twenty years after the end of apartheid, South Africa is struggling with crime and poverty. Now, one man is trying to improve the lives of children by teaching them to surf

Not many people would feel safer in a shark-infested sea than in their hometown, but Luxolo Ponco does.

The South African teen has found refuge at Monwabisi Beach, a short walk from his home in the violent Khayelitsha township in Cape Town.

"When the gangs fight, I come here to surf and I feel safe," he says.

Safety is relative. About a week ago, a surfer was attacked by a great white shark just down the beach. And in June, a fisherman was shot dead by robbers on the same stretch of coastline. But Luxolo, 17, and about 250 youngsters from Khayelitsha have found a new perspective on life with Waves for Change, a non-governmental organisation founded and run by British surfer Tim Conibear.

On a recent cold and windy winter day, more than 30 children aged seven and upwards gathered cheerfully in a shabby compound. In it, there was a container full of old surfboards and wetsuits.

The compound is surrounded by concrete walls topped with razor wire, marking a line between the nearby beach and their homes in Khayelitsha. The township, covering 43 square kilometres, comprises humble houses and shacks.

Cape's natural beauty

The beach looks out on the vast blue waters of False Bay, which curves from a dramatic mountain range in the east to Cape Point, Africa's most south-western tip.

The natural beauty of the Cape is popular with tourists, but for locals it is almost unknown. Only 20 years ago, the racial system of apartheid barred people like Luxolo from "whites-only" beaches.

Now the poor people feel they have not benefited enough under the new black majority government. So their anger and despair often explodes into violence. But on the beach at Monwabisi, the surfers put that behind them.

"I love surfing too much," says Thozamile Nompondo, a fit 19-year-old who is one of the "young leaders" of the project. He used to sniff glue and smoke marijuana, and felt pressured by his friends to join one of the gangs - until he found the programme at 16. "Since I joined surfing, I said no more gangsters. It has changed my life."

The children's wetsuits are a bit baggy and likely to let in more of the cold winter water than they should, and some carry worn-out boards, but they bravely head to the beach. After their warm-up run, along with a traditional song and dance for energy, they dive into the sea with astonishing confidence. Before joining the programme, most of them could not swim and had barely seen the beach, despite it being very close to their homes.

"There is this amazing resource on their doorstep - people in other areas pay millions to live by the beach," says Conibear, 32.

Conibear is a keen surfer who first came to South Africa hoping to become a wine maker. He fell in love with both the Cape and a local woman, to whom he is now married.

Waves for Change

Moved by the plight of people in the townships - the name given to areas where blacks lived under apartheid - he established Waves for Change with the idea of getting children hooked on surfing instead of bad things like crime and drugs. This means there is regular attendance at the programme, which also "promotes active learning, open discussion and connection to further social, health and educational support", Conibear says.

Most of the children have experienced some form of abuse. Many are referred to the programme by schools where they are seen to be struggling.

The children "learn to believe in themselves and realise they can achieve their goals", says Nolwazi Makhuluphala, the NGO's senior child and youth care officer.

Khayelitsha programme manager "MacGyver" Ngeyakhe, 26, has a past matching the children in his care. "I was a bad boy. The sea helped me change," he says. He knows the youngsters want to be there, pointing out that "they still wanted to surf the day of the shark attack".

Asenathi, a shy 13-year-old, had an explanation for this courage, perhaps inspired by the fact that for so long the sea was for whites only.

"We are scared of the sharks, but we told ourselves that we never heard that there were black people who were eaten by the sharks - it's always whites only. That's what we told ourselves to keep us strong."

Agence France-Presse

This article appeared in the Young Post print edition as
Troubled teens hang loose

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