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Black Girls Surf – Summer 2021
Photography Carl van der Linde

Meet the radical Black surf school shaping youth culture in Cape Town

Olympic hopefuls and casual gliders: Black Girls Surf’s new South African arm are riding the waves and championing a new generation of surfers

It’s a bright Sunday morning in Muizenberg beach, Cape Town, and a story of hope is about to emerge. Standing at the ocean’s edge is a group of young Black girls filled with anticipation. “WE ARE BLACK GIRLS SURF! WE ARE BLACK GIRLS SURF!” chant the girls, a mix of self-conscious teenagers and fidgety pre-teens, in unruly unison. An air of rhythmic chaos hangs over the scene as another chant, equally exuberant, goes up: “My name is Khadjou, Rhonda, Asiphe…”

The excitement is evident, but there’s also a sense of anxiety. “You’re all in the beginning stages of becoming pro surfers, whether you’re nine years old or 17 years old,” Rhonda Harper reminds them. Harper is the California-based founder of Black Girls Surf (BGS), a non-profit surf collective bringing together girls and young women between the ages of seven and 17. BGS offers performance training, coaching and surf therapy camp, supporting Black girls across the world to turn their dreams of becoming professional surfers into reality. This is a big deal, because you won’t find many Black girls in the water let alone riding waves, thanks to a history of racial injustices coupled with patriarchy and class oppression. Despite having its origins in indigenous communities in Hawaii and Polynesia, surfing has been popularised as a western sport. This has been achieved through erasure, beginning with the ban of the sport by white missionaries in the late 18th century and, later, the exclusion of Black people from places of leisure determined as ‘whites only’ during the Jim Crow era in the US and apartheid regime in South Africa.

Since the group was founded in 2014, BGS has grown into a global phenomenon with chapters in countries including the US, Senegal, Nigeria, Jamaica, Sierra Leone and, most recently, South Africa. With 54 girls signed up since its launch in April, the Cape Town chapter is the collective’s largest to date. (Cape Town is, incidentally, one of the youngest cities in the world, with almost half of the population younger than 25 years old.) All of the girls come from Crossroads, one of the oldest townships in the Western Cape established on the back of the migrant labour system and the Group Areas Act of 1950 which segregated South African cities, towns and townships according to race. The new cohort of surfers was introduced to Harper by local resident Koleka Sofuthe, who facilitates extra-mural activities for children through her grassroots organisation Qiqa, based in nearby Nyanga. When I meet Sofuthe at the launch, she is warm and shows a real sense of care for the girls in her custody. “Some of the kids have never been here before – they were asking me on the way, ‘Where is Muizenberg, where is Muizenberg?’” she notes. Nyanga is a mere 15 miles from Muizenberg and yet, if one knows anything about the history of segregation in Cape Town, this lack of access is hardly surprising.

Harper works closely with Khadjou Sambe, Dakar’s first female professional surfer, whom she coached as well as helping support her journey to compete as a pro surfer. Sambe, who is currently training to represent Senegal in the Paris 2024 Olympics, now coaches young girls in Senegal through BGS’s local chapter, training 42 girls, five of whom are in the elite category. Sambe flew to Cape Town from Dakar as part of her training programme for the Africa Surf International contest hosted in South Africa this year, and is coaching the new BGS intake of athletes during her stay.

“Let’s build a sense of community first, before everybody starts labelling it. We don’t need a narrative. We just want to be seen and respected on the same level as everyone else” – Rhonda Harper

The BGS method is one founded on collaboration, with the collective fostering close relationships with local groups and coaches who can contribute valuable expertise and knowledge about their respective regions. In Cape Town, BGS is affiliated with Nexgen Surf, a local surf school owned by head coach Yani Trout. For Trout, who met the girls for the first time at the launch, “It’s a great privilege to work with people who don’t normally come to the ocean to experience, for the first time, what the ocean has to offer.”

Trout knows the value of collaborative initiatives supporting young athletes from underprivileged backgrounds. “We consider ourselves tools in empowerment by teaching youngsters how to surf,” he explains, “equipping them with the necessary skills and uplifting them by taking them out of difficult circumstances where surfing becomes an option through which to experience the ocean’s tranquility.” As with all collaborators, volunteers and young girls inspired to be a part of the BGS story, a sense of vitality and radical energy underpins his words.

When Sambe unpacks her own experiences, that energy is palpable. As Senegal’s first female pro-surfer, her achievements are important for many reasons, first and foremost as an incredible accomplishment for a young woman who was banned by her family from surfing, but also as a source of inspiration for girls across the world, who see themselves in her story and can stand behind her with pride. This type of visibility goes a long way in creating ruptures – opening discourses around recognition, support, funding and visibility for Black women in sport. Through these successes, new stories are beginning to emerge. When I ask her about visibility and recognition, Harper is quick to warn me, “Let’s build a sense of community first, before everybody starts labelling it. There’s no narrative here. We don’t need a narrative. We just want to be seen and respected on the same level as everyone else.”

Both Sambe and Harper show an incredible level of commitment. Sambe, slightly on the shy side compared to Harper, is thoughtful and attentive – during the launch, she is gentle with the girls, encouraging them and making them comfortable despite the language barrier. (Sambe’s first language is Wolof; the girls are native Xhosa speakers.) Of course, the role of the coach extends beyond technical training into mentoring and care, particularly given the mental and physical strength required to become a competent pro surfer. For Harper, it can only be rewarding to see this journey come full-circle: as well as an Olympic hopeful, Sambe is now a competent coach in her own right, leading the Dakar arm of BGS.

This sense of giving back is crucial. “It’s important to be able to continue to fund girls, not just this generation but the next,” notes Harper. Whether in California or Cape Town, BGS is founded on values of empowerment and inclusivity, leveraging opportunities that will help female athletes reach their full potential. “Sitting on the outside, you don’t realise how many layers are necessary to see that surfer in the water.”

When seen in a context of racial exclusion and, in the case of many west African girls, traditional views of what girls can and cannot do, surfing is political. Sambe’s journey, for instance, was not an easy one. Faced with the challenges of a family refusing to support her dream, racial aggression during her time training in the US and a lack of resources, the young Senegalese stuck with it, dedicating herself until her body became fluent in the language of the water. She realises the value of surfing – what it can do to one’s confidence, both in and out of the sea. Her journey is a reminder of the ways in which surfing can change attitudes, cultures and lives. It is about passion, dedication and the persistence to defy odds, but it is also about opening doors and leaving them that way for those who come after.

Reflecting on the launch of BGS in South Africa, Harper reminds me, “The work has been happening for decades. We’ve taken one more step. But we’re not there yet.”