Did Mandela surf an awesome ride to freedom, dude?

Peace, reconciliation … and boards. NJR ZA

It’s there in black and white. Tinged, appropriately enough, with blue. On the inventory – handwritten in Afrikaans – of Mnr N Mandela’s personal Eiendom (property) on leaving Victor Verster prison outside Cape Town in 1990, alongside assorted boxes, a suitcase, a white cardboard hat, weights, two umbrellas and an exercise bike, we find the following item: “1 Surf Bord”. The official Afrikaans word is “branderplank”, but “surf bord” is sometimes used.

The inference is clear: Nelson Mandela was a surfer. What this document (preserved in the digital archives of the Nelson Mandela Foundation) doesn’t specify is whether he preferred a three-fin high-performance thruster or a classic Malibu-style longboard – traditional wood or modern foam and fibre-glass?

In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela writes that in his first 20 years in prison, on Robben Island, he had “accumulated very few possessions” but that in his final years “I filled over a dozen crates and boxes”. No reference to the surfboard. I scoured the pages in vain for further references to his prowess on the epic waves of South Africa. But after coming across this haunting reference to a surfboard sharing imprisonment with Mandela, I couldn’t help but wonder: had he perhaps surfed, as I had, the legendary break of JBay – Jeffreys Bay on the east coast, with its perfectly formed, long-lasting tubes?

Sport of presidents

We know that Nelson Mandela was a keen swimmer in his youth and his “cottage” in the low-security prison where he spent his final years even came equipped with an outdoor pool. At what point he may have morphed from swimmer to surfer is unclear, but gazing through the bars of his cell on Robben Island, he must have dreamed of escaping in baggy shorts and t-shirt atop a great frothing all-redeeming giant wave. At the very least, Mandela’s surfboard will have symbolised freedom, beyond the prison walls and the barbed wire and the hard labour.

Nelson Mandela Foundation

It used to be commonly said, whenever a kid caught his first wave, on the assumption that he would be derailed by surfing: “He’ll never make president now.” All that is going to have to change. Henceforth, bystanders will be heard to mutter: “He’ll have a decent shot at the presidency when he grows up.” Or, further down the line: “That insane cutback virtually guarantees our boy’s nomination.” After all, Barack Obama followed naturally in Mandela’s wake, carving out similar lines in the political sphere.

Obama, born in Honolulu on the south shore of Oahu, Hawaii, has shown himself to be a competent body surfer, even if he never graduated to the faster, more challenging winter surf of the North Shore (realm of Pipeline, Sunset Beach and Waimea Bay). But of course he went to school in a culture suffused with reverence for the figure of Duke Kahanamoku.

Gnarly Mr President. Obama Diary

Kahanamoku was one of the original “beach boys” of Waikiki, but made his name winning Olympic gold medals (in 1912 and 1920) for swimming, embodying grace under pressure on his wooden board, and finally evangelically spreading the word of surfing far and wide. In the midst of World War I, while millions were dying in the killing fields of Europe, Duke took surfing to Australia, where he mesmerised a beachside crowd in Sydney by riding a wave standing on his head.

Saddam don’t surf…

Surfing, throughout the 20th century, represented not just an alternative to war, but the counter-cultural gesture par excellence. At the time of the first Gulf War, I was surfing on the North Shore when a fellow wave-rider turned to me and said: “If only Saddam surfed.” It was a classic utopian conception of surfing politics. Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, a stray American surfer once looked up at an East German armed guard in his tower and yelled out, “Man, you are bummed, because you will never know what true surfing really is.” Maybe surfing really contributed to melting the Cold War. Certainly both Mandela and Obama owe much to the tradition of Kahanamoku and Hawaiian “aloha”. Poised between East and West, North and South, Hawaii’s philosophy of harmony between man and wave, body and soul, fed into the concept of reconciliation and cohesion exemplified by the rainbow nation.

This sense of surfing as a riposte to or critique of adversarial mainstream culture, goes right back to the first encounters between Europe and Polynesia. The botanist Joseph Banks was the first European to witness wave-riding, in Tahiti in 1769. But it was William Anderson, surgeon on Captain James Cook’s Third (and fatal) Voyage, in 1777, who not only scrupulously observed, but also seemed to envy surfers: “I could not help concluding that this man felt the most supreme pleasure while he was driven on so fast and so smoothly by the sea.” He added that surfing seemed to “allay any perturbation of mind”.

Sigmund Freud said that there were three factors chiefly responsible for the “discontents” of civilisation: psychoanalysis; religion; and those 18th-century voyages of discovery in the southern hemisphere – because each of them raised unrealistic expectations of future happiness. Even as Northern micro-organisms infected and decimated island populations in the South, so too the virus of surfing was carried back north to Europe and America. The mirage of the South Pacific persisted in the French Revolution: “I was born to create a Tahiti!” sang Camille Desmoulins as he went to the guillotine.

In the same period, enshrining “the pursuit of happiness” as an inalienable right in the Declaration of Independence may have been inspired by the new, palm-fringed zeitgeist. There was, Jefferson and Franklin conceded, something other than our Puritan work ethic to look forward to. On the other side of the Atlantic, Napoleon’s first essay similarly took “Happiness” as its subject. The rise of capitalism occurred against a distant horizon of post-industrial hedonism.

…. maybe God does

But surfing, for all its presidential associations, was never just about the politics. The “oceanic feeling” that Freud detects at the core of all religious experience, the sense of a transcendent affinity between the self and the non-self, underlies surfing. Our primal desire for oneness with the wave is not just eros, but also thymos (θύμος) – “spirit” or “spiritedness” as it is sometimes translated. No wonder then that we find, in the more distant reaches of history, the very first allusion to surfing, or at least a dream of surfing, in the formation of heaven and earth, as sketched out in the opening verses of the book of Genesis: “And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters”.

So the universe was surfed into shape? It makes perfect sense to me. But, as with Mnr N Mandela, I can’t help wondering – what kind of board was He riding?

An edited version of this article appears today in The Independent newspaper. The author would like to thank Rob Hewitt for his help with research. @andymartinink