Mon, 18 May 2015

You know when the waves are sick? Well, now we have a doctor in the house with a simple remedy. Dr Glen Thompson talks to Spike about his doctoral thesis on history and surfing in South Africa.

Glen JBay Supers Sept2013

GThompson SUN PhD-GraduationSurfing academic Glen Thompson is a doctor of surfing, as some media loudly proclaimed. "Dr Dude" headlined one Sunday newspaper. But of course his supervisors would probably prefer wording that is not suggestive of the act itself, but more as a reference that directs you to the subject matter of the academic tome that earns him the right to be called Doc.

It would be nice if you could get the moniker simply by doing something you love, but he had to miss many dawnies burning the midnight oil to earn it. When surfing becomes your work, you get in the water a little less than you might like. Sigh.

After chatting to him recently, he revealed that he has been researching his thesis since his schoolboy days surfing in apartheid Durban, only he didn’t realise it at the time.

Not many surf rats would be able to wrap their mouths around his thesis title, let alone understand it’s deeper meaning in the socio-political context of South Africa.

Gender and Politics: Identity and Society in the history of South African surfing culture in the 20th Century has enabled him to move into his new interest, which he says is the “Social and cultural makeup of the post apartheid beach.”

Glen Seal-Point SA-Longboard-Champs Final 2010Either way, his voluminous 210 page epic is a thorough study of surf culture from 1959 to the 2000s. He examines how it evolved from an all-white, male-dominated beginning to the multi-faceted culture it is today. It is academic of course, but fascinating reading.

He looks at why surfing in South Africa came to be considered a white, male sport, and asks questions about the racialised nature of the sport in the 1960s, and asks some tough questions about whether surfing is political.

There is an intriguing correlation to the ‘double whiteness of the Californian influences that shaped local surfing culture at “whites only” beaches during apartheid’, and surfing’s own internal upheavals and turmoil around a fractious unity in the mid-90s after boycotts and sanctions brought about a crisis in competitive surfing.

GT Madagascar-2011-photo-by-Brenton-Geech

In fact, if you think about it, surfing has struggled to overcome the legacy of apartheid. Some say that we have never really recovered. The year is 2015 and we have only two surfers out of 32 on the world tour, Jordy Smith and Bianca Buitendag.

However, the good news: surfing is beginning to shed the dark shadows from the past. When you go down to beginner playgrounds at places like Muizenberg Corner, good things are happening. With its easier waves and more relaxed attitude to the machismo of rigid wave-riding mores inflicted by the ‘locals only’ mentality, Muizenberg enables a much more inclusive spectrum of skill levels, and invites a broader mix of age, creed and gender.

We also have a slew of talented youngsters fighting their way through the amateur divisions in South Africa as well as the professional WSL Qualifying Series. Kommetjie protege Michael February almost won the Martinique Surf Pro a few weeks ago, coming 2nd out of 144 surfers.

Thanks to people like Glen Thompson, South African surfers can trace their journey from the past to better understand who we are, collectively and as individuals.


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