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Taverns and Waves

So there we were, hanging out under the tin roof of the 'Hollywood Tavern' in Khayelitsha… and it was certainly a fitting way to round off an unusual morning. I was guiding a 6'3" blond Finnish man, a 'Reality TV' producer living in Los Angeles. He wanted to take 'alternative' photos in the townships, and we had made our way around various communities, mainly in Khayelitsha.

Sparza Salesmen'Molo, molo, Mama, uMnumzana, uvela eUSA, ufuna ukuthatha iPhoto. Lungile?', I would ask (which, in pigeon Xhosa, means 'can this man from America take your photo?') And of course, the people of Khayelitsha - by nature and culture always welcoming to visitors - were happy to grin broadly for the camera. They expressed only moderate surprise when the big Finn wearing dark glasses would lie flat on the ground and point his camera up toward them at a jaunty angle. But they would laugh heartily afterwards, seeing the pictures on screen.

Anyway, my guest had heard of 'shebeens' - the tin-shack taverns of the townships, and he wanted to see one. So, late morning, I led my ultra-cool Finn into the Hollywood Tavern on the outskirts of Khayelitsha. We received a surprised but enthusiastic reception from the patrons, although their eyes were glazed like the numerous empty quart sized bottles on the wooden table in front of them. They indicated that we were very welcome to put some money in the juke box and the pool table, and in a few moments we had thumping 'kwaito' music playing very loudly and I was trying to remember how to arrange pool balls in a triangle.

The Hollwood Tavern shebeenTo cheers, a man rose from his bench and wandered listlessly to the table. 'The Professor', the locals cried. He took the cue like a fencing foil and, standing upright, he stood swaying, with his left hand on his hip, and firmly parried the white ball. It was like watching jousting and I half expected to see the baze ripped, but a striped ball glided purposefully into a far pocket, to hearty applause. The Professor continued to clear up the table, helped by his habit of having a few goes if he missed, and although he moved unsteadily, he beat us convincingly.

After a few more games we left, driving out of Khayelitsha, past a group of young people eating outside 'Aunt Gray's Rescurent' and a shipping container marked the 'Hip Hop Hair Stylists'. Leaving the township we drove back along the impressive False Bay coastline to the once up-market seaside resort of Muizenberg. Here we saw a powerful contrast to the streets and taverns of Khayelitsha.

In Victorian times Muizenberg's beautiful beach was the most upmarket resort in the Cape. But as 'dark' people began to use the beach in the 1950s, so its appeal waned, and over time the Balmoral and thirteen other 5* hotels reluctantly closed their doors. The fine old buildings now lie barely used and are mostly boarded up (although there are impressive plans to re-develop the area by a private consortium led by David Jack, the former MD of the Waterfront).

Gary's Surf Shop is one of the few businesses open on the dilapidated Muizenberg seafront. Gary Kleynhans was a national surfing champion and chats in the low, slow, mellow language of a true Cape Town surfer. He now teaches surfing to the highest level and hires out and sells wetsuits and boards (a friend and I have become frequent customers in recent months - to people like me he hires out boards that are so large and buoyant an elephant could surf on them).

A few years ago, Gary took notice of the Black kids, bored and aimless, that hung out in run-down Muizenberg. Everyone else ignored them, or steered clear, but Gary and other 'full-on surfers' took the trouble to provide them with boards and take them out to sea. If they came out with him three times he would let them borrow a wetsuit too (a good test of their commitment!)

Gary's surf schoolGary has given tens of young black people an absorbing passion for surfing. And as they borrow boards and receive training from him, day in, day out, so they start to tell him about the issues in their lives. He has helped many to develop confidence and vision, and some have found employment in his shop and as surfing instructors.

Today at Muizenberg, on a busy day, you can watch the amusing sight of people like me behaving like Charlie Chaplin at sea, but if you look further out, to the far breakers, you will see young black men, in funky bright wetsuits, walking up and down on their short, dynamic little boards, jumping, twisting in the air and performing tricks on the waves that you would not dream possible.

And as I pointed these athletes out to my Finnish friend I couldn't help thinking that these same lads might otherwise be at the Hollywood Tavern, aspiring to play pool like the Professor, but because someone gave them a chance they are riding waves so brilliantly they are now doing well in national competitions.

The only drunkards around these young men are fellas like me, trying to stand up on a surfboard that looks like a barge.


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