LISTEN | Freedom of the sea: Cape surfers break waves and stereotypes
Two athletes who defy racial and gender expectations are celebrated in a two-part documentary series
As SA celebrated Freedom Day recently, top surfer Cass Collier and internationally qualified lifeguard and surfing coach Khanyisa Mngqibisa opened up about their journeys of overcoming stereotypes, prejudice and apartheid to find freedom in the waves.
Collier and Mngqibisa, both from Cape Town, are celebrated in two-part documentary series Free Surfer. The first episode follows Collier’s relentless pursuit of surfing during apartheid and his rise to become the first person of colour to win the Reef ISA Big Wave World Championship in Mexico in 1999 and the launch of his surfing academy in the Mother City.
It also follows the story of Mngqibisa, a young black woman from Khayelitsha as she relates how she defied assumptions about who belonged in the sport of surfing.
Collier attributes his 41-year journey in the ocean to his father who taught him how to swim when he was just nine years old. At the time, SA was still racially segregated but this did not prevent the two from doing what they loved.
“My dad never changed the way he was. He ignored the police and people telling him he could not go to the beach,” he said recently.
At 13 years old, he left swimming when he discovered his passion for surfing.
“My father always took me to ride the big waves and I never stopped going to the beach,” said Collier.
Collier runs a surfing academy in Muizenberg. He teaches aspirant surfers about the importance of living a healthy lifestyle.
“Health is wealth. I coach every day in the ocean and coach the young ones about nutrition and a healthy mind and body. I try to show them I’m fit and healthy and still able to surf at 50 years old,” he said.
Mngqibisa discovered her love for the waves during swimming lessons at 10 years old, a skill that would save her family when she was forced to work as a lifeguard and support her younger siblings at the age of 16 when her mother fell ill.
“If it wasn’t for the school I went to as a child, I wouldn’t be the person I am today. My passion for surfing started the first time I stood up on a surfboard. It was a good feeling. I felt that I’m in my own world where I was in control,” she told Sunday Times Daily.
She said surfing was misunderstood in her community, more so because of a lack of representation of people who look like her. She endured gender and other stereotypes, and many times she considered quitting.
“I woke up every morning thinking I was wasting my time, but then I would talk myself out of it and say as long as I felt good and happy while surfing then I was not going to stop. I felt like I didn’t fit in and I started losing friends. People in my community would ask me: ‘Have you ever met a professional black surfer?’ That discouraged me,” she said.
Mngqibisa could not afford individual coaching and surfing lessons and attributes her success to organisations such as Life Saving Sport and Surfing Organisation which offered free equipment and lessons.
She said surfing helped her remain calm throughout her life’s challenges, including anger issues and losing a friend to gun violence.
“That killed me inside and made me want to surf more,” she said of hearing about her friend’s murder.
“Surfing keeps me calm and relaxed. It has changed my attitude in a big way. I used to be an aggressive and angry person because I asked myself why did I have to be an adult at an early age and work for my siblings.”
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