Surfing the divide – Libby Leyden

surfing the divide - mel

We used to think surfing was for white people. It wasn’t something we talked about in Lavender Hill,”

Jodine Siegelaar

Some twenty young girls, ranging in age from 10 to 12, shriek in excitement as they race back and forth along the shore. The gleaming white sand shifts below their feet. Jodine Siegelaar and Mel Devilliers, both 25, grab surfboards and follow them into the water, just past the famous bathhouses of Muizenberg Beach on the eastern side of Cape Town, South Africa. One girl hugs Siegelaar’s hip. “Are you going to surf today?” asks Siegelaar. “Yes!” the girl shouts, as she runs into the water. Another girl, who doesn’t know how to swim, grabs onto Devilliers arm as the pair step carefully into the oncoming waves. “The waves look good today,” Devilliers whispers to the girl. Siegelaar helps two other girls onto a surfboard, showing them how to paddle using their arms. It is not long before the girls are standing on their boards, surfing toward shore. A huge smile spreads across Devilliers’ face. She’s knee deep in the warm ocean water, applauding the girls as they successfully master the waves.

Siegelaar and Devilliers are surf coaches at Waves for Change, a surf therapy program on Muizenberg Beach. As the only surf therapy program in the country, Waves not only teaches children living in the most violent townships in Cape Town how to surf; it also helps them develop life skills that can be applied far beyond where the water meets the shore. Waves for Change was launched in 2012 and operates all year as an after-school program. It combines surfing, support groups, and home and school visits with additional mentoring to help young people who have emotional and psychological stress from continued exposure to violence and poverty. It also employs young adults who live in the same townships as the kids to work as surf coaches and mentors. Waves first worked with kids in Masiphumelele and Khayelitsha, both primarily black townships. Then, in 2013, Waves for Change set up a program for Lavender Hill, home to so-called colored South Africans and the township closest to Muizenberg Beach. This is where Siegelaar, Devilliers and the kids they teach live.

“We used to think surfing was for white people. It wasn’t something we talked about in Lavender Hill,” Siegelaar says. Apartheid, which segregated South Africa by race for over 30 years, forced people to split into communities based on race — white, black, or colored, which refers to anyone who identifies as mixed-race. During apartheid, coloreds were considered superior to blacks but inferior to whites in the social hierarchy. While apartheid law established segregated workplaces, churches, and schools, on a day-to-day basis the division was most visible in Cape Town on the beaches. The best beaches in the country were reserved for white feet. This ensured that most South Africans would never know the pleasures of beach life — swimming, surfing, and simply sitting on the sand. Even after apartheid ended in the early 1990s, segregation continued in places like Muizenberg.

Lavender Hill has among the highest violence rates of the townships in Cape Town. The community is impoverished in every way imaginable — no jobs, poor schools, few recreational opportunities. This is why surfing is such precious escape. The moment Siegelaar and Devilliers first put on  wetsuits, they were hooked. When they describe their first wave, it sounds more like a love story than a replay of an athletic sport. “I feel lighter when I am surfing. It makes me so crazy happy to catch that big wave,” Siegelaar says with a grin on her face. “Surfing takes my mind off the stress or anger I might have that day,” says Devilliers, who is terrified of heights and credits surfing as her opportunity to prove to herself she can conquer her fears.

I feel lighter when I am surfing. It makes me so crazy happy to catch that big wave,”

Jodine Siegelaar

While Cape Town as a whole remains racially divided, Muizenberg Beach has been slowly becoming integrated. The unlikely catalyst for this change is surfing, normally considered an elite recreational activity. Waves for Change has created a community of young surfers from the townships, giving them access to a thrilling physical activity that has long been off-limits while also providing them with the skills to cope with their difficult situation. For Siegelaar and Devilliers, the experience of being surf coaches has been even more beneficial. After two and half years working as surf coaches, both women are preparing to leave Lavender Hill and explore possibilities outside of their township, something that was not an option before.

After the surf coaching session, which took place earlier in the afternoon, Siegelaar, Devilliers, and the kids climbed into a Waves for Change van and drove back to Lavender Hill, where more than 30,000 people are squeezed into a three-kilometer area of land that sits just behind the city of Muizenberg. Siegelaar lives with her mother, her brother, 18 year old brother, and her three year old sister. Their shack is located in a maze of other poorly constructed structures made of scraps of metal and driftwood. Raised by a single mother, Siegelaar is expected to take care of her brother and sister, to cook dinner and to complete all the household chores. Even after an exhausting afternoon of surfing, she must prepare dinner for when her mother returns later. She shares the hallway room with her brother while her mother and sister share the only bedroom. As a teenager, Siegelaar was an angry person. She frequently had loud outbursts. She says her mother abused her both physically and emotionally. Her father left home when Siegelaar was only three years old. This forced her mother to take a job in a factory, working 12-hour shifts that paid little money. Siegelaar remembers her mother being very unhappy. “I always thought I was a mistake,” she says.

Devilliers, Siegelaar’s friend since childhood, lives a few rows of houses from Siegelaar. She is the youngest of three children and also lives with her mother, as well as a sister and three nephews. Unlike Siegelaar and most other people in Lavender Hill, Devilliers’s house has indoor plumbing. Devilliers’s room is squeezed in between the kitchen and bathroom. Her door is decorated with stickers that advertise brands of surfboards and athletic wear. On the wall above her bed, Devilliers has written in chalk such affirmations as ‘Believe” and “Your dreams create your reality.” Her mother has always been the main provider for the family. Her father was an alcoholic, and often came home drunk. He recently suffered a stroke and has been in the hospital for over a month. This caused Devilliers to take on extra responsibilities at home. Like other poor people in Cape Town, Devilliers must fight every day to stay positive.

As a result of the harsh circumstances surrounding young women in Lavender Hill, many get pregnant at a young age, join gangs, or drop out of school. Moreover, they face social pressure to start families. From the time Siegelaar and Devilliers were teenagers, older women in the community have pestered them with questions about starting a family. Isn’t it time you had a baby? Don’t you want to have children? There is little outside influence in the community to encourage women to get a full time job other than motherhood. Even after apartheid ended and all races were declared equal in the eye of the law, colored and black neighborhoods remained poor. Lavender Hill lacks basic services; no fire department, no water department, no police station. The monthly income of most families is $200 dollars or less, and only one percent of the residents have completed some form of higher education. Most homes are informal shacks, while some are precarious one-bedroom apartments that house entire extended families. The gravel roads are difficult to navigate with or without a vehicle.

In South Africa’s townships, 45 percent of children ages one to 18 have witnessed a killing; 56 percent have been a victim of violence; and most display signs of post-traumatic stress. Unemployment is at an all-time high for non-white Cape Town residents, which means that many young adults, desperate to survive, find their way into gang life. Today, some 150 gangs roam the streets of the many townships of Cape Town. Since the threat of danger is always present, the kids in Lavender Hill are constantly in a state of hyper vigilance. Gunfights take place in schoolyards, in between apartment complexes, and in the streets. Most children in Lavender Hill don’t spend much time outside.

Siegelaar and Devilliers are no exception. They’re unable to walk freely in Lavender Hill, and they never venture out after the sun goes down. One evening a few years ago, Siegelaar was making dinner when she heard the unmistakable bang-bang of gunfire. She fell to the floor and remained motionless. That’s when she realized that her brother was still outside. Siegelaar feared the worst. A second round of bullets flew through the air. Suddenly, acting on pure instinct, she bolted upward and through the front door. Siegelaar ran in every direction looking for her brother, forgetting about the possibility of being harmed herself. “My heart was beating like crazy. I was so scared,” she says. When she discovered him at his friend’s house, a wave of relief flooded her body.

Up until recently, this was all Siegelaar and Devilliers could hope for. They were stuck, unable to grow, to improve their lives, to alter the circumstances surrounding them. Neither imagined that a life-changing opportunity was close at hand, as close as the nearest beach.

Muizenberg Beach is one of the best surf breaks in South Africa. Throughout the apartheid era, from 1948 to 1991, it was also well known for banning black and colored people. During that time, Cape Town beaches had signs that read “White Only,” and security guards were posted to prevent non-whites from trespassing. This kept Muizenberg Beach, which had ideal surfing conditions all year round, reserved for the smaller white population. Cape Town’s reputation as a “Surf City” was built on segregation.

In the late 1980s, the all-white National Party, which controlled the country, began looking for ways to open up hotels and beachfront property to forms of tourism that would demonstrate to the international community that South Africa was changing. In 1989, the government formally declared that beaches were open to all races. But most non-white people still stayed away. To reject the beach, says Glen Thompson, a surf historian who has been studying the beach culture in South Africa for over twenty years, was a way “to reject whiteness.” In other words, it was a means to reject white privilege by refusing to enter a historically white space.

By the early 2000s, local surf shops in Cape Town began to alter the perception of white space versus non-white space. At Muizenberg’s famous Surfers Corner, surf and sporting shops launched community programs to entice at-risk youth in the nearby townships to come to the beach. The early programs hired outside volunteers or native South Africans, all white, to teach kids how to surf after school. This intrigued Elizabeth Benninger, an American student doing postdoctoral work in child psychology at the University of the Western Cape. “The beach was one of the most racially neutral places I could be in Cape Town,” Benninger recalls. An experienced surfer, Benninger was drawn to South Africa because of the waves at Muizenberg Beach. She was focusing her research on Lavender Hill, where, as luck would have it, she met Devilliers. Benninger asked the young woman if she wanted to try surfing. Devilliers, a timid person, confessed that she was afraid of the ocean, since, like almost every other young person in her township, she had never learned how to swim.

Cape Town’s reputation as a “Surf City” was built on segregation.

One afternoon, Benninger took Devilliers and a few other young adults to Muizenberg Beach and began to teach them how to surf. Devilliers was terrified. But she went back every day to practice. After three months, she was finally able to stand on a board on her own. Buoyed by the success of Devilliers and others, Benninger approached the principal of Lavender Hill’s high school to discuss bringing more kids to the beach. The principal, who’s colored, laughed. These are colored kids, he told her. They do not surf, they do not swim, and they do not go to the beach. “I thought to myself, these kids do not surf because they have never been taught to surf, not because they are colored,” Benninger says. She knew the principal was wrong. The young people she had been working were very curious about surfing, and they were eager to try, especially because it looked dangerous.

Benninger saw an opportunity to use surfing to provide a form of therapy to address the childhood trauma that was prevalent in Lavender Hill. The formal term “surf therapy” had been around since early 2000, when it was used to treat military veterans who suffered from PTSD. It combines surf lessons in the water and group therapy before or afterward on the sand. The premise is that learning to surf builds confidence, and that it provides mental relief for people consumed by fear and doubt. Benninger began to take groups of kids to the beach after school, scrounging up whatever money she had to purchase old surfboards and used wetsuits. But soon the number of Lavender Hill kids who wanted to participate overwhelmed her and Devilliers. Benninger went in search of a source of additional funding and discovered Tim Conibear, who was running an NGO called Waves for Change in Muizenberg, using surf lessons to teach, of all things, HIV prevention.

Benninger and Conibear saw a chance to combine their ideas and Waves for Change became the country’s first surf therapy program for children. For the participants, Waves is one of the few options they have to truly be kids. American children might see one traumatic event in their entire life, but the children of Lavender Hill see one every day. Teachers beat children if they misbehave. Gangs prey on them everywhere. And at home they often witness domestic violence. Surfing allows the kids to escape all of that. But it also offers them a chance to learn a skill, one that entails an element of danger, and that gives them a feeling of control. “Surfing is what attracts the kids to the program, but what we then offer are practical ways to cope with the trauma,” says Cassandra Wagenaar, psychologist and Waves for Change’s program director, who joined the organization in 2015.

Benninger also developed a second tier to Waves for Change by launching a surf coach program. She wanted to enlist young adults in Lavender Hill who would be willing to learn to surf and become mentors for younger kids. Currently there is a shortage of social workers in South Africa — only one for every 30,000 kids in Cape Town.. Benninger wanted to create a network of supportive adults in the community the kids could rely on and interact with on a regular basis. “The more it stays local, the more you get buy-in from the community,” Benninger says. And that in turn increases the likelihood the program will endure. Devilliers had been working as a coach for Waves for just a few months when Siegelaar asked if she too could join the program. “I just remember hearing the word ‘Change’,” says Siegelaar. “I knew I wanted to change my life but I was struggling to find a way to do that in Lavender Hill.” Benninger then helped both Siegelaar and Devilliers to improve their surf skills while also teaching them how to be youth social workers.

When Devilliers and Siegelaar started working at Waves for Change, they had work to do in order to build the interpersonal skills necessary to succeed as coaches. Siegelaar had trouble controlling her anger and Devilliers was nervous about speaking in front of the children. “I could not understand why all this abuse had happened to me. I never spoke to anyone. I just kept my feelings to myself,” says Siegelaar. “I knew that surfing was something that could provide me with positivity.” But gradually, just as they had conquered surfing, they gained confidence as counselors.

All of the surf coaches come from the same townships as the kids. They are young adults, who, according to program director Wagenaar, could have benefitted from the program 10 years ago. Most of them dropped out of school or were unemployed prior to being hired by Waves. Wagenaar says that what makes Waves’s approach different is that’s based on community members helping other community members — pairing young adults with their younger neighbors.

Developing coaches like Siegelaar and Devilliers is an ingenious way to make up for the lack of social services in the Cape Flats. “There aren’t enough professionals willing to go into poorer areas,” says Leanne Stillerman, a clinical psychologist who works currently in Johannesburg. “And there are high levels of burnout among professionals after seeing desperate situations.”

Each week, Siegelaar and Devilliers check in with the kids in the program, asking them about any trouble they may have at home or school. The coaches work hard to make the kids feel safe enough to talk about the problems they’re dealing with in Lavender Hill. That the coaches come from the same township as the kids gives the coaches credibility. The threat of violence and abuse is just as prevalent for the coaches as it is for the kids. “Seeing a dead person is the norm for us. Seeing someone shot in the head. Laying on the floor,” says Devilliers. “And we know the kids see the same things. It makes it easy for them to trust us.” Devilliers lives on the same street as five of the program participants. Every time she walks to Devilliers’ house, Siegelaar encounters Waves kids. “They run up to me and say ‘Coach Jodine, are we going to surf today?’” she says.

As a way of dealing with the constant threat of violence, kids and young adults in Lavender Hill tend to become indifferent to the pain of others. They also become accustomed to causing pain. Recently, for example, Siegelaar and Devilliers had to settle an argument between two girls in the program. Mikala, 10, found the equivalent of $1 US dollar on the ground. Jocelyn, who’s 11 and has an uncontrollable temper, kicked Mikala. Jocelyn’s family had lived in a shack in Lavender Hill, but it had burned down a few months earlier. She has been living with her grandmother since. While Jocelyn is prone to hitting and punching, she responds well to positive reinforcement, according to Siegelaar. Mikala, for her part, has been an active participant at Waves for almost a year. She learned to swim during the first few weeks of the program and is now in love with surfing. Last year her mother passed away from a drug overdose, so she currently lives with her grandmother and father. When Devilliers talked to Mikala about the fight, Mikala told her that the night before, her father had hit her for staying out past her curfew — 8 PM. Siegelaar and Devilliers remind the two girls to respect others and that bullying is never an option, neither at Waves nor back home. The bond between the coaches and the kids is formed on the beaches but it extends to Lavender Hill as well.

Now five years old, Waves for Change has taught more than 1,000 children from the three townships how to surf and how to survive. Waves has also helped its older participants become certified surf coaches, lifeguards, and youth care workers, as well as provided them with computer training. Every year the kids take a survey. Last year 38 percent of them reported starting fewer fights than they did before the program. Teachers in Lavender Hill report that kids who attend Waves regularly are better behaved. The prospect of surfing after school gives them an incentive to do their work, to behave at home, and to act respectful toward others. For many kids, surfing life has become an alternative to gang life. Another indication of success is the increase in female surfers. When Waves began, there were no girls; now they make up one third of the children in the program, and that number is expected to increase in coming years.

This past March, Siegelaar attended a coach training session offered by the Laureus program, a global sports-based charity, based in South Africa. Wagenaar at Waves for Change helped her fill out the paperwork and sent in a letter of recommendation on her behalf. Siegelaar was one of fourteen coaches from sport-based programs selected to attend the weeklong retreat, held in Cape Town. She insists she returned a changed woman. “The negative feelings inside me are gone,” she says. Siegelaar says the key to letting go is to motivate and encourage others — which is what it truly means to be a coach. “I now know what my purpose is,” she says. That from a person who not long go couldn’t imagine a purpose beyond making it through another day in Lavender Hill.

In their final months of work at Waves for Change, Siegelaar and Devilliers joined the other surf coaches for intensive weekly surf sessions. Most professional coaches who work for the surf shops near Muizenberg Beach have been surfing for years, but the Waves coaches are still novices, which means practicing once a week without the kids from the program is essential to gaining mastery. During a recent practice, Siegelaar led ten other coaches in a variety of warm-up stretches. She stretched out her arms and bent forward, touching her toes. The group mirrored her movements.

The wind was calm, the water, as usual, warm. “Perfect surfing conditions today,” Devilliers said to Siegelaar. The two grabbed their bright blue boards and followed the other coaches into the water. Devilliers hopped onto her board. She and Siegelaar then paddled out to the back of the lineup, where the surfers waited for the perfect wave. Within seconds, Devilliers stood up and was gliding toward shore, her eyes focused intently ahead.

Surfing makes me think I came overcome whatever difficulties I’ll face,”

Mel Devilliers

“Surfing makes me think I came overcome whatever difficulties I’ll face,” said Devilliers before she paddled back out to the waves.

Libby Leyden is a reporter for the Half Moon Bay Review in California. Follow her on Twitter to stay in the loop. @Libby_Leyden

This story was first published on the SeaMaven website. Visit them here: