(CNN) — South Africa has beautiful beaches and some of the world’s best surf, but during apartheid segregatory laws were used to bar nonwhites from parks, swimming pools, libraries, public transportation — as well as beaches.
The “Whites Only” signs may have come down but for many reasons, including income and culture, many young black people still do not take part in water sports, let alone get international recognition for participating in them. That’s what makes Ayuvile “Avo” Namase so remarkable.
Twenty-one year-old Namase is well aware that, when it comes to surfing in South Africa, he’s very much in the minority. “People still believe that black people don’t swim,” he says. “I know for a fact that a lot of African people are still afraid of the water, man. When people see me with a surf board or getting in the ocean, they’re like: you? What the hell?”
But it’s not just other people’s prejudice or stereotypes the young competitive surfer has had to overcome. In 2011, his younger brother, Zama, with whom he learned to surf, died after being attacked by a shark off the coast of their home town of Port St Johns, in South Africa’s Eastern Cape.
“He just turned 15 four days before that,” explains Namase. “It was one of those days you can guarantee yourself nothing will happen; the water is crystal clear, the waves are small, not even a cloud in the sky.”
Namase describes how, as he was turning to head back to the beach, his brother headed back to sea to ride a wave but was then attacked by a shark. “He tried to jump on the board and, obviously, when you try to jump on the board your legs are going to open. [It] got in between the legs and main arteries, as he tried to climb on the board.
“Probably that one bite was it. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life, it looked like a blood bomb blew under water, and just blood everywhere.”
After that tragic incident, it would take Namase months to get back in the water. He says relocating to Durban and getting back in the water helped him heal.
Surfing as therapy
Tim Conibear understands surfing’s appeal and healing power and is using the sport to reach troubled kids through his organization, Waves for Change (W4C).
“Because the sport is risky it attracts kids drawn to risky behavior,” says Conibear. The Cape Town-based organization works with young people dealing with emotional trauma, helping them to grow in confidence.
Conibear explains that whether it’s seeing a parent taken away by police or being sexually abused, the kids who go through the W4C program typically are exposed to eight different instances that cause trauma a year.
Explaining why surfing helps the children, Conibear says: “The water is very scary and most of the children can’t swim. It is an environment where they learn to build trust. It gets the children out of the community and as an individual pursuit each child develops emotional vocabulary and coping strategies.”
Another organization that recognizes the transformative power of surfing is Surfers not Street Children, where Namase now volunteers.
Its founder, Tom Hewitt, says of the young talent: “He’s a different character, so rather than come into Durban from Port St. Johns and settle into the background [Namase has] become sort of a prominent character in the surf community. And we love him to bits. He has become a volunteer at Surfers not Street Children and he became part of the family.”