The Long Road To J Bay

Majestic surf meets harrowing reality in post-Apartheid South Africa

(All photos by the author)

Your education begins the moment you take a seat on the South African Airways flight to Johannesburg. The Melbourne-based, South African expat in the seat next to me brings me up to speed on the situation. “An AK-47 (assault rifle) is a means to employment for people living in the townships,” he begins.

“You can become a criminal with a gun like that. Not just car jackings, they do home invasions too. That’s why the whites live in gated communities surrounded by barb wire fences and attack dogs, and everyone has an armed response team. You press a button and you’ve got a SWAT team at your door in minutes,” he says. 

From above, Johannesburg resembles an immense, anarchic, sprawling rabble of high-rises, houses, and lawless shantytowns aka “townships.” All set against a dusty, brown landscape, complete with low-lying smoke haze for added dystopian effect.

According to the most recent statistics, 57 people are murdered each day in South Africa – or over 20 000 a year. That’s an increase of 6.9% on the previous year though still half as high as 1993, the year before Apartheid ended (if you believe official government statistics, which, by the end of this, you might not). 

The vast majority of violence occurs in the townships; large, sprawling, ramshackle shantytowns situated on the outskirts of every major city and regional centre (known euphemistically as “informal settings”). Shantytowns, as I prefer to call them, are strictly for black and coloured* people. They are comprised of houses built from scavenged wood, plastic and corrugated tin, often with dirt floors, and which rarely have electricity, heating or running water. It is not uncommon to see giant shantytowns directly across the road from rows of plush, modern, heavily-fortified town houses. 

The weekend I arrive 43 people are murdered in shantytowns surrounding Cape Town and it will be 25 the following weekend. One story I read involved a double homicide carried out by two still-at-large gangsters, one of which was, suspiciously, wearing a police-issue bullet proof vest. Extrajudicial killings by police, most of whom are black, are common and it’s often difficult to discern the difference between cops and robbers. Both peddle arms, drugs, and murder anyone who gets in their way. 

The news report also said the gangsters had returned shortly after the original double homicide and killed a further six witnesses, all of them young women. This story was buried on page six of the national newspaper, behind a page two feature on a (white) South African rugby star/playboy/coke fiend who died prematurely, likely of suicide (as I was leaving the country I saw billboards asking for financial donations to help his family get by). Another story about a wealthy Hindu widow who had mistakenly paid off her late husband’s Mercedes Benz into the wrong account and was struggling to get her money back was considered more newsworthy than the murder of six young black women.

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The murder of six young black women in a township, all witnesses to a previous murder, buried on page six of the national newspaper. 

As you’d expect, the violence often spills out of the shantytowns into the wealthier, white communities. This is my third trip to South Africa and one thing I’ve learned is everyone has a violent crime story. Either they were held up at knife or gun point, a friend or family member was, or they’ve witnessed one unfold. Often the muggers – high off huffing glue or ice – stab or shoot before making off with the goods. 

It’s unsurprising then that South Africa has the lowest average life expectancy in the OECD at 58 years old. Conspicuously, there are no statistics that measure the difference in life expectancy between the black and white populations, which strikes me as odd, if not a blatant coverup, because the living standards between whites and blacks here couldn’t be further apart. Nowhere does inequality like South Africa. 

Shantytowns are lawless, hopeless, deeply impoverished, drug, violence, gang, rape, and molestation afflicted hell holes. So much  According to statistics from the University of Cape Town, the average South African kid will experience eight “heavily traumatic” incidents a year (in Australia or the UK it’s four across an entire lifetime); 20-50% have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and less than 50% will finish school. Unemployment has shot up from 21.5% to 28% in the last ten years and a whopping 55% of people aged between 15-24 are unable to find any kind of work or income. Again there is no differentiating in the rates between black and white populations, as if everyone’s in the same boat here. They are not.

White South Africans, meanwhile, make up just 9.1% of the population and live in structured, affluent clumps of town-houses and mansions like any other first world, European nation. Take this powder keg of racial and economic resentment and stir in around 5.3 million high-powered, legally and illegally sourced firearms and you’re starting to get a sense of the scale of the problem here.

So much is said about modern civilisation’s many achievements and advancements but South Africa really stands as a bulwark to that. The contrast of extreme wealth and literally across the road from the worst kind of suffocating, abject poverty and endlessly compounding trauma makes you realise we have come nowhere near as far as we think we have as a species. This is up there with the worst denials of human rights and dignity in history. It is a disgrace. Even worse, it is totally unnecessary and could be easily solved. As talk of a Universal Basic Income gathers momentum, I can only hope South Africa is one of the first places to get it. It’s a no-brainer. Neither black nor white should have to live in this kind of perpetual fear and jeopardy. 

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While poor blacks huff glue in dirt floor shanties surrounded by crazed maniacs with machine guns, rich whites guffaw at giraffes and dine out on marbled steak. Nowhere does inequality like South Africa.  

To get to J Bay requires a flight from Australia to Johannesburg, another to Port Elizabeth on South Africa’s south-eastern tip, and finally an hour or so drive. Compared to Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth, is affluent, green, structured and idyllic. It resembles every other British port city in the world (think Liverpool or our very own Newcastle). As you descend over a shimmering ocean and industrial machinery standing guard over the harbour, neat rows of townhouses sit adjacent trees and parks while in the distance a rugby match unfolds on a well-manicured pitch. 

The further away you get from the city centre the more the housing deteriorates along with the signs of economic prosperity. Sinister looking public housing blocks with washing hanging over the balconies bid you farewell as you hit the road to J Bay.  

The highway is a hive of human activity. Local blacks stick out their thumbs looking for a lift and we see numerous cars abandoned by the side of the road, at one point three in a row all with their bonnets up. Not long after passing “suicide bridge,” which I’m told was recently installed with barbwire, the majestic Jeffrey’s Bay looms on the horizon and talk turns to the ethereal waves it entertains. 

“When it’s in that big and perfect eight foot range there’s nothing like it,” begins veteran photojournalist, Peter ‘Joli’ Wilson, who I’m sharing a ride with. 

“I once watched (South African surf legend) Shaun Tomson surf for six hours straight on a day like that, paddling way out to sea to get back up the point. I often tell people, if you’re looking for a good surf trip and don’t mind the cold this is the one,” he says. 

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The best right point in the world, J Bay, in all its majesty.

It’s been nine years since I was last here and the town has nearly doubled in size. Scanning inland from the unmistakable outline of the pointbreak, you see a giant beige “sim city” – my collective noun for those ubiquitous large modern townhouse developments – stretching back across a hill. Prior to the advent of surfing in J Bay, the town barely existed. Now it has its own thriving micro-economy based on tourism, hospitality and construction.

The fact all this has stemmed from what was essentially a countercultural pursuit is evident in the town’s character. J Bay has retained many of those utopian ideals. Ever since the Apartheid boycott, launched by two-time world champion, Australian Tom Carroll, three-time world champion, American Tom Curren, South African world champion, Martin Potter, and four-time world title runner-up, Australian Cheyne Horan in 1985, the pro surfing establishment drew a line in the sand regarding its tolerance for intolerance. All up and down the coast, from Durban to Cape Town and beyond, you’ll find surfing charity’s dedicated to brightening township’s kids’ lives with surfing with help from the likes of three-time world champion, Mick Fanning, World Tour legends Taylor Knox and Ace Buchan, among others.

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Scum Valley’s Finest, Cheyne Horan and Matt Elks

Ace, in particular, shares a deep affinity with South Africa. A graduate of the prestigious Sydney private school, Barker College, Ace’s dad is a school teacher who was born in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and educated in South Africa before emigrating to Australia. While the contest was on, Ace and his coach and former World Tour surfer, Glen ‘Micro’ Hall, took it upon themselves to host a local coloured kid, Dillon, from the nearby township, along with several of his siblings. Dillon, a talented young surfer who rides for Billabong, was free to stash his boards and wetsuits at Ace’s rustic rental property overlooking J Bay, and come and go as he pleased. Each night he and his entourage of family members were given a lift back to their township by Ace or Micro.  

“It’s humbling,” said Ace. “They’ll be sitting here next to the fire place trying to dry their clothes. They don’t even really have heating at home,” he says. 

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World Tour veteran, Adrian ‘Ace’ Buchan, talented J Bay goofy foot, Dillon, and supercoach, Glen ‘Micro’ Hall. 

As the Round of 16 gets underway in the World Tour event, in ruler-edge Supertubes conditions, I take a seat next to Alfie Blakey, the father of well-known World Surf League (WSL) commentator, Ronnie, and an underground surfing legend himself.  Alfie first arrived in J Bay in 1969 on the run from Vietnam War conscription in Australia and spent weeks living under a piece of plastic in the dunes behind the point, surfing high on Orange Sunshine acid.

“It was incredible. Some of the best times of my life,” he smiles, today.

After finding a job as as a labourer alongside local blacks he ended up staying a year here.  “They’d all be chanting and singing as we worked. It was amazing,” he says, though adds, it wasn’t easy. “The local Afrikaans farmers in Humansdorp (the nearest town) hated us. You had to be careful. They were looking for an excuse to flog ya. Probably ‘cos their women wanted us,” he laughs. If it weren’t for the likes of Alfie and more directly local counterculture surfing counterparts like Bruce Gold, it’s hard to imagine J Bay existing the way it does today.  

As the final of the contest gets underway, J Bay turns on. The waves are well over-head, offshore fanned, and running the length of the point. The only thing more impressive than the surf is the surfing. 

Two-time Brazilian World Champion, Gabriel Medina, is unlike any surfer in history. Australian world tour great and 2012 World Champ, Joel Parkinson, calls him the “most naturally gifted surfer” he’s ever seen stand up on a board.  Up against another Brazilian goofy footer in Italo Ferreira, in the final – an anomaly at J Bay, a right point, which has historically favoured natural footers – Medina puts on what has to be the most radical display of backside surfing ever witnessed here. 

Behind by a near perfect score of 9.1 points out of ten within the opening minutes, he showed signs of cracking under pressure early. But that’s the funny thing about Medina. Just when you expect his confidence to dip and crumble, the opposite happens. His resolve stiffens, his focus sharpens, and he pulls off something that barely even makes sense. 

His first scoring ride in the final was exactly that. Bigger than any wave that had come through during the contest, complete with a weird triangle of ocean running sideways through it, I thought he’d blown his chance at victory as he stroked into it.

But as the wave grew, and this weird triangle of ocean moved through it, Medina screamed off the bottom and met it every time, blasting the lip into the heavens, air-dropping into the flats and doing it all again. The second-last and last turns are as good as you’ll see. When he followed it up with an even better 9.77 for a series of smoothly linked speed floaters, carves, lip hits and an end-section tube, the Jeffrey’s Bay crown was his and my journey was complete. – Jed Smith

*“Coloured” means mixed-race in South Africa as opposed to the indigenous peoples known as the South African Bantu, made up of the Zulu, Xhosa, Basotho (South Sotho), Bapedi (North Sotho), Venda, Tswana, Tsonga, Swazi and Ndebele tribes. 

**This piece was originally published by GQ Magazine in Australia but later removed from their website due to a complaint. I met with the editor, Mike Christensen, to discuss the removal of the piece. I told him, I didn’t realise newspapers censored themselves over a complaint. Because, like, who gives a fuck? It’s just one whingeing white man at the end of the day isn’t it? It’s also worth mentioning this piece appeared on the GQ website sandwhiched between an advertorial about Porsche’s new superyacht and some other celebrity-based drivel.

***A version of this story was subsequently rejected by SURFER Magazine and The Surfer’s Journal (US).

Road To J Bay

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