Making Waves in Durban
Introducing Sam Cele, the world’s first female Zulu surfer competing at pro level.
As dawn cracks open an immense indigo sky, soft golden rays transform the Indian Ocean into a pool of shimmering mercury; its calm, undulating surface is disturbed only by perfectly formed white breakers rolling majestically toward the Durban seafront.
To witness this scene, I’m standing at the end of one of the piers that divides the city’s Golden Mile shoreline into a series of beaches stretching between the sculptural white edifice of Moses Mabhida Stadium and, at its southern end, sub-Saharan Africa’s busiest port.
Durban — the main city on the east coast of South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province — is the country’s playground, where an invigorating beach culture lures holidaymakers of every ilk to let their hair down. So those in-the-know arrive here early — not only to beat the heat, the humidity and the bustling crowds that will soon descend, but also to witness this stretch of ocean at its best.
And of course among those here at dawn’s first light are members of the city’s most salt-licked tribe — the surfers. Many of the sunkissed bunch have been riding the waves here all their lives, seduced by the perennially warm water, the abundance of sunshine-filled days, and the thrill of catching these waves.
Durban’s surfers have long enjoyed iconic status. Ruling the waves and owning the beach with their raffish charisma, they hold sway over the popular imagination in a metropolis sometimes referred to as “Surf City.” They possess an effortless confidence, a sense of calm that comes with feeling utterly at home in the one part of the city where everyone wants to be: the beach.
Theirs is a tribe that understands the ocean’s many moods, appears instinctively to read the push and pull of the tides, can predict the weather, and seems to gravitate toward a sense of danger. And for them, there’s only one thing that matters: the condition of the water.
Durban’s waves are good year-round, but as the winter months bring particularly glassy conditions, today is nothing if not idyllic. And striding down toward the beachfront against a backdrop of seaside kitsch — determined not to miss another moment of this perfect swell — is Samukeliswe Cele, a young woman with her sights set on greatness.
If Cele sees out her dreams, she won’t only be surfing the world circuit one day, but she’ll become the first Zulu woman in history with a shot at an international championship title.
Rising through the ranks
Durban has long boasted of an association with world-class surf, and surfers. Legendary Durbanites include the 1970s’ world champion Shaun Tomson, among the most influential surfers ever to have lived; the ’80s’ “tow-in” surfing pioneer Martin Potter; Jordy Smith, who consistently ranks among the world’s current top surfers; and big-wave world champion Grant “Twiggy” Baker, who continues to seek out record-breaking surf.
Aside from their status as surfing heroes, though, they’re also all white men, a hangover of South Africa’s socially-divided past. During the dark days of apartheid, the beachfront that’s now such a vital, vibrant social mishmash was — like the rest of South Africa — a segregated place where people of color were not permitted to swim or sunbathe. Not until the 1990s did Durban’s first black surfers start to emerge.
Women’s surfing has also tended to have more limited visibility, with far smaller competition purses and fewer sponsorships. And while internationally rated contests for men happen regularly in South Africa, last year’s Ballito Women’s Pro held at Willard Beach north of Durban was in fact the first internationally rated women’s event to be held in the country since 2009.
But what made the Ballito event even more significant is that, by competing, Cele inadvertently set a new milestone in surfing history: becoming the first Zulu female ever to participate in a World Surf League qualifying event.
Cele, who finished third in her quarter-final round, held her own against far more experienced athletes; Nikita Robb, who won the contest, had been surfing competitively since 2004, years before Cele even considered tackling her first waves.
And though Cele may have been outclassed by more seasoned surfers, what’s incredible is how rapidly she’s risen through the ranks to even compete at this high level.
“This is only my fourth year surfing competitively,” she says at age 18, adding that “the girls I’m competing against all started surfing when they were as young as five or six.”
In fact, until seven years ago, Cele had barely ever been in the ocean. “I’ve always had a love for water, and I was always a good swimmer, but I never imagined I’d end up surfing,” she says. “Before I got into surfing, I’d only really been to the beach once. It had never been a place where I’d hang out.”
Although born and raised in Durban, Cele says her early swimming days were spent in the school pool, and that as a young Zulu girl the beach wasn’t a social focus. Her introduction to what quickly became her passion happened purely by chance. A friend of her father, who owns a surf shop, suggested she sign up for the free surfing lessons offered at Durban’s Addington Beach. Despite never having given surfers a second glance, Cele says it took just one lesson to get her hooked.
“I quickly became addicted,” she says. “I think perhaps because it wasn’t in my frame of reference — because I literally knew nothing about surfing — I had no preconceptions. That meant that I wasn’t the least bit scared or nervous, and when I first hit the water, instead of being freaked out or intimidated, I stood up really quickly.”
As effortlessly as the technique came to her, though, Cele says it was the thrill and exhilaration she felt that really captured her soul. Since then, she’s been a fervent devotee, cramming every possible moment since entering her first competition with wave-riding.
Cele says she spends many long hours on the water, most of the time knowing she’ll be the only woman out there. “I don’t mind. I’m kind of a loner and I usually surf alone,” she says. “And it’s cool, because essentially what I need to be doing is spending endless hours really getting to know the waves.”
Especially now that she has her sights set on the World Tour, Cele admits she doesn’t have time to socialize. “I have to be really focused right now. Being labeled ‘The world’s first female Zulu surfer competing at pro level’ has made me want to work even harder. It’s refocused my goals and visions, because now it stands for something. It feels like a responsibility.
“There’s added pressure to work really hard because people are relying on me to break ground,” she adds. “But it doesn’t subtract from how tough and exhausting it is getting there.”
The truest measure of success
Given the complex scoring system used to determine qualifying rankings and the high level of competition, it may take several years before Cele reaches her goal. Yet according to Ann Wright, director of Surfing South Africa, the true measure of Cele’s achievements cannot be measured only by the degree of success she enjoys in competition.
“She is one of South Africa’s wonderful surfing stories,” says Wright. “She’s a young girl who — against all the odds — simply persevered, and as a result is now a household name, especially in her community.”
“Surfing has always been one of those sports that’s perceived as being for white kids only — and also predominantly male,” adds Wright of the significant strides Cele has made in challenging prevailing norms. “Sam threw all of those assumptions out the window when she joined our development program and said ‘I want to be a surfer!’”
And she’s definitely started a trend, says Wright. “Besides her own training, she is coaching a lot of up-and-coming young ladies like herself, and we have a couple of them knocking on the door to get right up there where Sam is.”
Indeed, Cele says what she’s particularly thrilled about is that a number of young black girls are discovering surfing through her. “They’ve seen me at competitions or watched me on TV or read about me, and they’re using social media to contact me — asking if I’ll give them some guidance,” she says. “I’m keen to encourage as many new people — especially Zulu girls like me — to get into surfing. I offer help to anyone who asks.”
“I want to see more people discovering surfing, because I’d love everyone to feel what I feel when I’m riding a wave,” she adds. “There’s simply no way to put that feeling into words.” And with that, she smiles and looks over her shoulder to glance at the waves. She has more important things to do than hang around chatting with me.
Evidently giddy with excitement, she turns to face the water, watches the waves for a while, and then clambers between the pier’s metal railing with her board. She checks that her leash is fastened to her ankle and keeps a keen eye on the breakers.
When she’s satisfied, she jumps, letting go of her board as she goes and entering the water on a perfectly timed upswell. She recovers her board, climbs on top, and gives me a final glance and a smile before leaping to her feet and riding off toward the shore — seemingly at total peace, and yet fully ready to tackle any hurdles that remain in her way on the path to glory.
Keith Bain was born and raised in Durban, where he spent much of his youth on the beach and in the warm Indian Ocean surf. He has written guidebooks to countries in three continents, and he also co-wrote A Hedonist’s guide to Cape Town, covering the city where he now lives and works when not traveling.