South Africans are in desperate need of a feel-good story as they cope with a pandemic, load-shedding, economic implosion and general misrule. And luckily there is one that has gone under the radar in local circles — though it is making big waves internationally.
Selema Masekela, the American son of late great jazz muso and SA icon Hugh, is a successful US-based broadcaster, chat show host, musician and all-round Renaissance man. Among his chief passions are surfing, snowboarding and skateboarding, so it should come as no surprise that he is also the co-founder of Cape-Town based surf clothing and lifestyle brand Mami Wata.
The people behind the brand, including Masekela and the SA designer Peet Pienaar, known for a previous stint as an enfant terrible of the SA fine art scene, came up with a great lockdown project — a coffee-table book, called simply and powerfully Afrosurf, documenting the history and realities of surfing in Africa.
What is little understood, and what the book lavishly illustrates, is that many African countries have a long history of surfing, both as a physical activity and as a quasi-religious alternative lifestyle — everywhere from Morocco to Nigeria, Ghana and Senegal. This may come as news to those who equate surfing with The Beach Boys, and blonde, tanned blue-eyed clones in Muizenberg and Jeffreys Bay.
Surfing’s origins go back way beyond the supposed “discovery” of wave-riding by Captain Cook and his colonisers in Polynesia in the 18th century, as the book points out, and the unique eco-friendly and spiritual characteristics of surfing’s adherents, their respect for the ocean and its power, are also shown as being consistently part of the African experience and history of surfing. There is also a politicised history of the activity, from the active exclusion of black surfers from beaches in apartheid SA, to the paucity of female surfers in many African countries — the book is helping African surfing communities to address both of these glaring absences.
The book was conceptualised and put together by the Mami Wata team and various contributors via social media an other online platforms in the first great lockdown of 2020. All profits are committed to two African surf therapy organisations — Waves for Change and Surfers Not Street Children. The book was crowdfunded and produced in only four months, which is impressive for a more than 300-page lavishly designed and illustrated coffee table book, and released in its first edition at the end of 2020. A couple of months ago a hardcover second edition was enabled when 10 Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House, made an offer to publish. The book has now sold almost 15,000 copies worldwide and has attracted considerable international attention, not least for its corrective to the stereotypical narrative that surfing originated in Hawaii and was later adopted by white Americans and Europeans, who spread it around the world. Pienaar’s design draws on various African popular culture elements going back to the early 20th century, including album covers and commercial signage.
The second edition of the book, a lavish hardcover in full colour, is now out internationally, at the same time that Mami Wata launches its clothing brand in the US. Considering that rumour has it that Ryan Coogler, director of the forthcoming Black Panther sequel, has drawn on the book’s images for part of the styling of the new film, we may be looking at a major SA success story.