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Madiba’s Left

Madiba’s Left

Nov 2013

Words & pics Alan Van Gysen

''Mandela” he said in a husky whisper, “are you awake? You are a lucky man; we are taking you to a place where you will have your freedom. You will be able to move around; you'll see the ocean and the sky.” He intended no sarcasm, but I well knew that the place he was referring to would not afford me the freedom I longed for.

- Nelson Mandela, prior to his incarceration on Robben Island, Pretoria 1964.

As early as the 1500s, Robben Island was used as a prison. First by the Portuguese, then the English, the Dutch and finally, South Africa. Its location proved ideal for the removal of undesirables from society. Banished and forgotten, nine kilometres across the cold Atlantic Ocean north of Cape Town. The Alcatraz of Southern Africa. 

During the Apartheid period between 1961 and 1991 it was a maximum security prison and "home" to some of South Africa's most well-known political figures: Govan Mbeki (father of former President Thabo Mbeki), former ANC activist Walter Sisulu, President Jacob Zuma, Tokyo Sexwale and of course Nelson Mandela. In his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela refers to this chapter of his life as 'The Dark Years', where the powers that be sought to break his spirit through the hardships of the island. But as time went by Mandela’s friendship with his fellow inmates and their common goal of liberation fuelled new hope. Through their work on the edge of the sea their stomachs and souls were fed, spawning a new chapter in Mandela's life which he called the 'Beginning of Hope'.

Looking back at Table Mountain in the pastel-dawn I couldn't help but have hope of my own. I was excited. Hell, we were all excited. Jordy's smile said it all. What a beautiful start to Freedom Day. It wasn't planned, but the stars had aligned ever so smartly: the swell, the weather, the public holiday, Jordy's 'Madiba' board and the return to Robben Island for original pioneer, Ian Armstrong, this time with his son Max. It couldn’t have been scripted better.

The island was getting clearer by the minute as we sped across the mercury surface that divided city from island. If Jordy's face was an open book of unrestrained excitement, Ian's was the polar opposite. Tightly closed and reserved as always. After 15 years he was back. Did he have something to prove amongst all the youngsters? In front of his son? Or was he just quietly reminiscing about his first encounter with this revered place? Whatever the reason, Ian was the first to dive overboard with his 6’2” firmly gripped between his hands. We had barely cut the engines and he was already comfortably paddling into his first wave - a solid, slabby mound in front of dry rocks that was home to a hulking shipwreck framed by Table Mountain. We all froze mid suit-up as Ian dropped in with his perfect rail grab take-off, honed from years at Kalk Bay, and followed it with a beautiful bottom turn to off-the-top snap. Kicking out down the line through a plume of glittering droplets his grin was unmistakable. He couldn’t hide it. Welcome back to Madiba's!

Ian was the first person to surf here along with Cass Collier back in 1998. Now, back on the boat, he recalls the feeling of the times and the reason they made the journey. "That was a really special time for me - the session and the opportunity. Growing up in South Africa I had some pretty mixed feelings about the oppression and about living under the Apartheid government. But when that fell away there was an amazing feeling of upliftment and freedom, and Cass and I just wanted to make the most of that freedom." They had ventured out in search of what the notorious island had to offer only a year after it had been declared a museum and national monument. 

"It hadn't been done before,” award-winning photographer Nic Bothma had told me earlier. "It was a historic session and very symbolic. Black and white surfing freely together and at the same time pushing the boundaries of their surfing. We had seen an aerial photograph of a good looking lineup which sparked it all." 

Cass aptly named the spot after the very man that symbolised this new freedom and, subsequently, their surf. And since it was a left, 'Madiba's Left’ stuck.

After this short recollection Ian grabs another board. A bigger board, a 6’9”, and launches himself once again into the frigid waters. The sets are big, a little too big for the reef to be honest. At 12 foot the larger ones are breaking before the slab and running off into very deep water. It’s the smaller in-betweeners that are the gems. Jordy hits the nail on the head when he says, “Man, if it was consistently smaller it would be firing! I’m definitely coming back.” 

The decision to sit on the inside is a double-edged sword though – you’re either going to get a slabby drop, barrel and bowly turn, or suffer the same fate as the rusted Sea Challenger that lies washed up on the bricks. The crew opt for the middle ground and manage to balance the sets with the insiders nicely. The only victim of the dreaded rock-dance is Ian, but it’s no surprise. We all have to pay the price for charging that hard eventually. Or maybe he just wanted some quiet time on the island and an opportunity to watch Max charging the sets. 

“My dad had told me about this left he had surfed that’s quite sketchy to ride and gnarly close to the rocks,” says Max. “But I was excited to try something new and surf with my dad.” It shows. Max seems to be on every set, drawing beautiful, inherently clean lines through his bottom turn and arcing carve off the top. “It is a powerful wave,” he admits later in the same typical understated manner as his old man. So much so that on one hold-down his leash is stretched to twice its original length and he has to come in for a replacement. Ian is visibly proud though to see him surfing Madiba’s, trading bombs with Josh Redman and Jordy while Ryan Payne clings to the inside like a limpet. “Ja, it’s very special for us all to surf here,” says Ian. “Especially on Freedom Day.”

Not fazed by the sets and relishing the fact that the tide is dropping lower and exposing the rocks even more, Ryan is in his element and frothing for the thicker barrels now on offer. Ryan is the kind of surfer that takes off first and worries about the outcome later. And to make things just a little more interesting, he’s determined to get barrelled while looking back into the tube, before negotiating a tight-pocketed top turn in front of the shipwreck. As fate or luck would have it he manages it all without incident and joins the crew back on the boat for a low tide departure. We decide to head over to a right-hander we had seen at dawn on the south side of the island.

There in front of us, glinting in the morning light, we saw the ocean, the rocky shore, and in the distance, winking in the sunshine, the glass towers of Cape Town.

The senior officer explained that we had been brought to the shore to collect seaweed. We were instructed to pick up large pieces that had washed up on the beach, and wade out to collect weed attached to rocks or coral. 

In the summer the water felt wonderful, but in winter the icy Benguela Current made wading out into the waves a torture. The rocks on and around the shore were jagged and we often cut and scraped our legs as we worked. 

The ocean proved to be a treasure chest. I found beautiful pieces of coral and elaborate shells, which I sometimes brought back to my cell. Once someone discovered a bottle of wine stuck in the sand that was still corked. I am told it tasted like vinegar.

We also relished the seaside because we ate extremely well there. Each morning when we went to the shore, we would take a large drum of fresh water. Later we would bring along a second drum, which we would use to make a kind of Robben Island seafood stew. For our stew we would pick up clams and mussels. We also caught crayfish, which hid in the crevices of rocks. Abalone, or what we call perlemoen were my favourite. In 1973, in a smuggled newspaper we read about the wedding of Princess Anne and Mark Phillips, and the story detailed the bridal luncheon of rare and delicate dishes. The menu included mussels, crayfish and abalone, which made us laugh; we were dining on such delicacies every day.

 - Nelson Mandela from 'Long Walk to Freedom'

On arrival at the right-hander facing Cape Town, we’re surprised to find we aren’t the only visitors. A busload of camera-laden tourists have just arrived to inspect the prison building on the rocks not far from where we are watching the bowly, unpredictable wave unload across the kelp. Some stop and look in our direction. I wonder to myself if they think that this is a common sight, and something worth photographing? One of the tourists half raises his camera as Jordy takes off on the peak, unsure of what he’s looking at. We almost all miss it too. One second we’re watching Jordy race down the line towards a hopeful section, a massive chunk of white-water shutting him down, and the next there’s an explosion of board, fins and Madiba’s face filling the space where moments earlier sat only empty sky. We all cheer and the rest of the crew jump in to join Jordy and Madiba. Josh and Ian manage a few classic carves and laybacks, but it’s Jordy who turns heads with another massive frontside 360, disappearing within the white-water and riding out over the kelp with a grin on his face. 

“I’ll definitely be back,” Jordy announces when he climbs back on board. With that we decide to call it a day and ready the boat for our journey back across the shipping lane. 

As we drop and trim the engines, I try imagine how it must have felt to have been held prisoner by these waters for 27 years. Mandela may not have thought much about the actual waves crashing on the island during those years, nor the fact that anyone could have surfed them and felt so free afterwards. But I'm sure he would smile that classic Madiba smile if he knew that one of those special waves was named after him, and what he has come to symbolise.

*Postscript: Upon his release from Victor Verster Prison, Nelson Mandela’s belongings were gathered up, inventoried, and signed over to a member of his release team. Included on the list was a “surfboard”. It turns out Madiba took great pleasure in being allowed to go swimming during the latter part of his incarceration on Robben Island. He wasn’t a very adept swimmer, however, and every time Madiba went in the water, his warder had to go in with him. Madiba requested a “boogie-board” to try-out that might help him instead but within minutes he became frustrated with it, and the sponge was relegated to storage, never to be used again.


Source: Zigzag Surfing Magazine