The school bell rings and within a few seconds the kids spill out, shrieking and laughing onto the street. That low-level hum of excitement at South Africa’s Esangweni High School in Town 3, Khayelitsha, is the same sound you’d hear at schools around the world.
But quickly that euphony is shattered when a piece of concrete the size of a man’s fist smashes against the chain-link fence. The kids rush back from the street into the safety of the school’s parking lot, chattering loudly and clamoring over each other—safe in their numbers—for a better view of the action.
“Oh, shit. That’s a fight!” says Tim Conibear, the British national who founded Waves for Change.
“That’s definitely a fight. Are we going to be able to leave?”
Not right now,” says Khanyile, Khayelitsha’s first female surf coach. “The gangs. Knife…” And she makes that wet cutting noise while sliding a finger across her neck. In the distance, on an open patch of land, young men take turns pelting each other with stones. Running into the open space and then retreating. Some of them stand there in clear view, taunting their enemies. Two kids enter the fray, no older than 14, walking fast and looking over their shoulders. One holds open his satchel while the other slips the long silver blade of a panga into it. They turn behind a container and disappear. Minutes pass.
“What’s happening?” I ask.
“The gangsters are fighting,” answers Mcgyver, head coach at Waves for Change Khayelitsha.
“How often does this happen?” I ask.
“Every week. Maybe once or twice a week,” he replies. “I think when the school comes out, it’s like a challenge. Like, tonight we’re going to fight. Often when we’re coming back from the beach at around half past five they’ve started fighting properly. A real fight. Knives and guns and stones.”
After about 15 minutes a cop van pulls up on the edge of the open lot where the two gangs are exchanging stones.
“They stoned the cops last time,” says Khanyile. “One of the gangsters shouted, ‘Who’s scared of cops?’ And they started throwing stones.”
This time around the cops stay in their vehicle. But their presence ends the skirmish, or merely sends it to another location. It’s hard to tell.Here in Khayelitsha the Gang War is more than just a newspaper headline. On a good day, like today, it’s just an inconvenience. On bad days, it can be worse.
“Every time we’ve had a journalist at the beach, something has always happened,” says Tim.
“When Zigzag [the South African surf magazine] came here there was a body. Their journalist came to the beach with us and he’s chatting to me and he looks over my shoulder and goes, ‘What’s that?z And there was a pair of legs sticking out from behind this pile of rocks on the beach. Some kid had been smashed up by the gangs and just dumped there.”
“Come,” Mcgyver interrupts. “Let’s go surfing. We’ll take the back roads, so we can avoid these thugs.”
Here in Khayelitsha the Gang War is more than just a newspaper headline. On a good day, like today, it’s just an inconvenience, a 20-minute delay in a school parking lot. On bad days it can be far worse.
“We need to walk together as a group,” Mcgyver explains. “Otherwise the gangsters can catch you alone in this area, far away from everyone…and here, they will punish you.”
We pass the site of a roadside slaughterhouse where the old bleached skeletons of at least three cattle lie between discarded chip packets and assorted plastic bottles. We turn off the road down a long path through the dunes and under the bridge, arriving at Monwabisi, which translates literally to “the place of our joy.”
The kids stream into the fenced courtyard of the surf club, which is made up of two renovated containers on either side of the yard. One is filled with boards, wetsuits, and a small kitchen, and the other functions as an office. The kids select their surfboards and grab wetsuits. Some head over to the changing rooms to stretch the neoprene on, others just do it in the yard with a towel around their waist. Soon, we’re all lugging the boards through the dilapidated pavilion, past a man-made tidal pool, being careful not to step on any broken glass. Beyond the tidal pool waves filter into the bay.
Down at the beach, instead of simply rushing into the ocean like so many other surf schools, everyone gathers in a big circle and the coaches run through a series of exercises. Tim takes a step back and waits patiently beyond the circle with his surfboard under his arm.
Born in Oxford, Tim Conibear learned to surf in Cornwall when he was 19. On a road trip to Morocco he developed a taste for wine, and after university he found an opening at a winery in South Africa. After a season cleaning barrels and picking grapes, Tim got the offer to head up a surf tourism operation called Ticket to Ride that brings groups of British “gap year” tourists to South Africa to learn to surf.
“It was fun, but the kids were pretty painful,” he says. “Very rich, very spoiled. They didn’t give a fuck about South Africa. All they really wanted to do was just drink and surf.”
But Ticket to Ride was adamant their “riders” engage with South African realities and not simply slipstream into the paradise bubble of leisure tourism, so they started organizing township visits and collaborating with a local soccer initiative in Masiphumelele near Kommetjie, Cape Town.
“Between trips, there was always a month of downtime, and we always went surfing with the kids we’d met through the soccer program,” explains Tim. “And slowly loads of kids started catching on, and then adults started coming along too. I had some friends who worked in NGOs and they said if you’ve got this audience, you should use it for something. In 2010, I quit Ticket to Ride and that’s when we set up the Waves for Change foundation. I spent a year messing around with a curriculum. I took kids from Masi down to the beach once a week and I tried to teach it, but it completely flopped. It just didn’t work. I was trying to talk to these guys about HIV and they were looking at me as this white guy from overseas thinking, ‘What the hell does he know?’”Apish and Bongani were our first two coaches. Straight away the kids opened up. I couldn’t get them talking, now we can hardly get them to shut up. Local coaches made the whole operation more sustainable.
So Tim decided to let the locally recruited coaches drive the program.
“Apish and Bongani were our first two coaches. Straight away the kids opened up. I couldn’t get them talking, now we can hardly get them to shut up. Local coaches made the whole operation more sustainable. If I was out of the country, the program kept going. And the community really buys into it because the community leads it. Equipment doesn’t get stolen because the community owns it. You start getting really good buy-in from the schools because they can see it’s a community-driven initiative. It took that initial big failure to realize that this is how it’s got to be.”
We stop to watch a wave wrap in from the False Bay and peel toward us across the Monwa reef.
“That’s the wave?” I ask rhetorically. Tim nods. “It can get really good.” We watch the rest of the set break in silence.
“Surfing is just the glue,” Tim picks up the conversation. “If you want to teach somebody to surf you’ve got to engage them for quite a long period of time. If you run a soccer team or something, it’s hard to get the kids coming every day, but the nice thing about surfing is that some of the kids get hooked. Then we have this educational curriculum that the guys go through a couple of days a week, and the surfing just cements the whole thing together. And surfing has a really nice reflective quality—when you’re sitting in the water, naturally you end up reflecting on what you’re doing with your life. So we always try to engineer it so when the kids go into the water, we leave them with a final thought that they can think about.”
“So what do you actually teach these kids?” I ask.
“It’s a form of community psychology,” Tim explains. “The main goal is to create role models in the community, like Mcgyver.” He nods toward the man in the middle of the circle of kids. “You want role models from the community, working within the community. And social cognitive learning theory is well suited to surfing because it relies on imitating the behavior of someone you perceive to be a role model. Because surfing here is totally new and the sea is terrifying for most of the kids, the coach who takes them into the water immediately earns their respect. It’s just such an easy way to engineer that relationship.”
“So Waves for Change is not really about finding the next Kelly Slater?” I ask.
“No,” he replies. “If the whole program focused 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 the way you see your community and the people who live in it. What we’re trying to do here is encourage people.”If the whole program focused on developing surfing excellence, it encourages kids to see it as a way out…What we’re trying to do here is encourage people to stay.
“We have this thing called ‘bananas,’” Tim continues after a pause. “Protect, respect, communicate.” He explains that the first time Bongani and Apish surfed Muizenberg was the first time they encountered surfing culture. They had never seen the shaka. To them it looked like a banana. Their confusion immediately short-circuited any surf culture pretension and was quickly appropriated as a kind of talisman for the Waves for Change project.
“Protect, respect, communicate. That’s the basis of our culture,” he says. “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 as opposed to thinking, ‘I live in a horrible place, I’m getting out of here.’ 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 a part of it. ‘Bananas’ is basically our attempt to align the early surf culture at Monwabisi with supportive and positive connotations.”
Down on the beach, the lesson in the circle is about peer pressure and community support, encouraging the kids to resist joining the gangs, doing drugs or crime. It’s a particularly relevant subject. I look up to see one of the kids being pushed backward by a group of three, emulating an instance of peer pressure. The single person calls upon the group for support. Someone steps in behind the kid and lends their weight to push back. Then someone else steps in and supports them, suddenly there are six or seven people supporting the one and as a group, they are immovable. Mcgyver plants the final thought and then everyone’s running down to the water and into the lineup. I follow on my board and snag a few waves from the crowd. While paddling back out for another, I fall into rhythm paddling next to Lwandile, one of the kids I was chatting to earlier on the walk down from Esangweni High School. Now he has a huge smile spread across his face.
“Having fun?” I ask, caught up in the contagion of stoke.
“You know why this is so great?” he pants.
“When you get into the water, all of your troubles wash away.”