Out in the surf

The ocean doesn’t care about skin colour, gender or origin – the Surfer Suthu Magiwane talks about her life as one of very few black women catching waves in Durban. A sneak preview from our upcoming magazine on Water

by Suthu Magiwane

 

June 2022

The ocean is stronger than us humans. Waves are created when the ocean tenses its muscles. And if the ocean is in a bad mood, it can kill you. It doesn't tolerate a wrong move — or any arrogance. Out in the surf, you as a human being are just a speck of dust in the nothingness. And that's what I love about surfing. The power that emanates from the ocean can also strengthen you. If the waves are gracious to you and take you along, then by riding the wave you can harvest its energy and take it ashore with you. Surfing has made me more confident, more courageous, but also more humble. Time in the water grounds me. If I'm away from the ocean for a long time, I feel empty, like I've dried up. The sea is not only a source of strength for me, but also of comfort. Surfing is like a therapy for me – I connect not only with nature, but also with my past.

A long time ago, my ancestors roamed the countryside, and they always sought proximity to water – lakes, river courses, the sea. We know little about them, but they are said to have had a very spiritual relationship with this elixir of life. The sea was their place of power, home to good spirits, their medium. Then came the settlers. They drove my ancestors inland and made them believe that the sea was possessed by evil spirits. Many people still believe that.


 

“I don‘t feel comfortable either when there are only white people around me on the beach.”

 


Even today you see relatively few black people swimming or even surfing in the ocean. They only come close to the water to paddle up to their knees or to be baptised. They wash themselves clean of all sins, and everything bad ends up in the sea. Who wants to swim then? It‘s ironic how we‘ve become so distanced from the place we once felt so connected to.

When I started surfing as a teenager, I was new to Durban. My family is part of the educated middle class; we could afford to move into a house near the beach. The neighbourhood kids were all white. Actually, officially, black and white thinking no longer existed. Gone were the signs telling us who was allowed to swim on which beach.


 

“I may be the first Black female surfer in South Africa. But out in the water, my identity doesn‘t matter: everyone is equal when facing the waves.”

 


My father told me that as late as the 1960s, over two kilometers of beach in KwaZulu-Natal were reserved for the white minority. Blacks had to make do with about 700 meters of beach. Decades of apartheid, centuries of discrimination, still have an effect today: most Black people still live inland, cut off from access to the sea. I don't feel comfortable either when there are only white people around me on the beach.

I may be the first Black female surfer in South Africa. But out in the water, my identity doesn't matter: everyone is equal when facing the waves. The sea doesn‘t ask about skin colour, origin, religion, age, gender or bank balance. All the sea asks of me is respect. And I give it that. I paddle out and cast off all my worries and doubts. The sea washes away everything bad, it‘s in constant motion. The waves come and go, no matter what happens on land. They always have, and they always will. And I fly along with the swell, as if my surfboard were a witch‘s broom.     

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As told to Dörthe Eickelberg. Our themed issue „Water“ will be out on July 1st, 2022.