Surfers waive the rules

In these outlandish times, the measure of all things needs to be constantly recalibrated if we hope to stand a chance of emerging relatively healthy and sane. So I don’t know if what is happening is a good thing or a bad thing.

I went surfing the other day. Don’t judge me. I didn’t drive through the suburbs spreading death and disease to get to the beach. I walk out of my gate, over some rocks and into the big wet thing. Yes, technically I broke the Law, but I, too, feel broken by the Law, and that’s all I can say about that.

I was among a handful of outlaws bobbing about in a cold, undulating ocean. A few guys and girls in their early twenties, a smattering of wild-eyed teenagers. One kid couldn’t have been more than twelve.

The waves were on the small side and there was no aggressive hustling as there usually is at this spot. Everyone was getting their turn. The sun, fat and orange like Donald Trump but way more useful, headed for the horizon as flocks of sacred ibises flew overhead in perfect formation. Then, in an instant, the mood darkened. Four police vans pulled up in the parking lot. They were about as welcome as a swarm of orcs gatecrashing Bilbo Baggins’s birthday party.

For surfers surfing illegally, there aren’t too many options in a situation like this. You could try paddling to Australia but you’d just get thrown into one of their filthy internment camps. The best is to sit tight and hope that the cops get hungry and go back to the station for a bunch of confiscated pies.

I wasn’t too worried. I’ve been arrested before – once in the 1980s under the Police Act, which was interesting. What I wasn’t keen on was spending a night in the cells in my wetsuit. A man of my boyish good looks and natural charm, wearing nothing but a figure-hugging latex rubber bodysuit, could easily find himself in trouble. Maybe they’d let me go home and change. Slip into something less comfortable. It seemed unlikely.

The younger kids, though. They were panicking. Their parents had encouraged them to get the hell out of the house for an hour or two so that mommy and daddy can have some alone time. Now look.

Unlike sex, surfing is not a team sport. Someone might paddle over and begrudgingly give a hand if it looks like you’re drowning, but generally it’s every man for himself. The coronavirus doesn’t stand a chance. You’d have to pay a surfer to get him to give you Covid-19.

The youngest of the crew was sitting near me. He had been having a great time until the cops arrived. The unsmiling enforcers of our insane new laws had spread out, sealing off the beach, and were settling in to wait for their catch of the day.

As I said, your choices are limited. You could pretend to be a piece of kelp and stay very still and hope that a great white shark doesn’t mistake you for a wounded seal. Or you could just keep surfing and wait for cover of darkness.

“What should we do?” the kid said to me, the very last person anyone should ask for sensible advice. His little privileged face was creased with concern and he seemed close to tears.

And that’s when it struck me. In the days of yore, white South Africans saw the police as allies. You’d call the Flying Squad if you were in trouble. Or if you saw a darkie acting suspiciously by, say, walking in your street after dark.

Sure, that particular kid wasn’t around in those days, but even so, it’s unlikely he or anyone in his family had ever considered the cops to be anything other than the Good Guys.

This whole fearing, dodging and lying to the police is all very new to white people. Out of nowhere (China), a virus is rapidly causing them to rethink their loyalty to an elected government and reconsider their trust in a police service which is quite clearly more of a force than a service.

Even though most whities never really bought into the ANC as a party capable of governing, they still clung to the idea that they could call 10111 and know that help would be on its way.

Now, they’re not so sure. Now the police no longer seem like the kind of people you’d want to call under any circumstances. If you had to, say, suffer an ischemic event while out for an illegal walk at 10am, you’d call anyone but the cops. Nobody wants to face additional charges of being drunk in public because their speech is slurred. Police are trained to recognise the symptoms of drinking, not strokes.

Obviously not all cops are vicious brutes incapable of independent, rational thought. But some people simply can’t help turning into instant assholes the moment you put them in a uniform. Hitler was probably pretty chilled on weekends, slopping about the Berghof in T-shirt and leather lederhosen, getting high on Bavarian skunk while painting tastefully lit nudes of Eva Braun. But come Monday, it’s on with the Schirmmütze and jackboots and suddenly it’s all, “Erschlagen alle Juden!”

People say children are adaptable and can handle anything. I don’t know about that. The kid in the water with me looked genuinely scared. This was clearly his first face-off with a bunch of angry black men with guns and handcuffs. Rookie.

He also knew that if he was arrested, his parents would discover that he was out surfing instead of doing virtual homework in his bedroom. During lockdown, angering mothers especially is to be avoided at all costs. Having had their husbands in the house day and night for two straight months, they are perilously close to cracking. There would be repercussions. Banned from surfing and without access to his phone, there’d be no point in living. I feel the same.

A lot of white kids, unless they come from a family of self-righteous snitches, are discovering that the authorities are not necessarily on their side. It’s quite an awakening. Breaking the law is a novel experience for a lot of whities and there’s a good chance they will develop a taste for it. As I said in the beginning, I don’t know if this is a good thing or a bad thing. It could go either way.

I didn’t surf today. Instead, I poured myself a bootlegged gin and tonic and stood in my sand dune of a garden, watching the sun melt into the sea. I saw a dad push his kid onto a wave. He couldn’t have been more than seven or eight. The kid, not the father, although they do start young in these parts.

Life seems so much better when the police aren’t around.


  • This column first appeared in The Citizen on 27 May. More every Wednesday. Subscribe here:

High times in Hound City

I had my 21st birthday party at a club in Durban. I hired it for the night. It was dangerously cheap. I don’t remember the name. It was down a side street deep in the noxious belly of the beast. It wasn’t one of those clubs with a glitterball. Or staff. Or décor of any kind. There must have been someone in charge, though, otherwise we’d all still be living there.

At around 3am, I’d had enough of being 21 and turned the lights off. My friends took it as a sign to crank up the degeneracy to unprecedented levels. After whatever it was that everyone had to get done in the dark, we left at 4am, cascading down the stairs and into the street.

Waiting to greet us were half a dozen members of the South African Police. They cornered us and demanded to see our hands. I thought maybe they were ‘precogs’, mutants with precognitive abilities who could read our palms and tell if we were going to commit a crime. But this was the plot of Minority Report, a movie that came out years after I had turned 21. It was deeply confusing. Perhaps I was a ‘precog’ gone bad.

The officers took our hands, held them up to their snouts and sniffed. The dogs must have been off for the night. Had I known the evening was going to end like that, I would have done unspeakable things with my hands in the bathroom. When we enquired as to what the hell it was they were doing, they said they were checking if anyone had been smoking dagga. Policing techniques have improved since then. These days, they smell your feet, too.

A few months later I was arrested, charged and convicted for possession of a tiny portion of Durban’s finest. It was at a roadblock in Villiers, a nasty little town that squats sullenly on the N3 somewhere in the fetid bowels of the Free State.

My roll of skinny karchies weighed 4.3 grams. I got six months suspended for four years. First offence. Not much has changed since those days. Our courts and jails are full of people who were caught with a bit of weed on them. Isn’t it time for a change?

America, a nation that believes evolution is a myth and their president is a Muslim fundamentalist from Kenya, is way more progressive than we are. Colorado and now Washington state allow people over the age of 21 to buy up to 30 grams of marijuana a month for recreational use. Alaska, Oregon and the District of Colombia are next.

In Colorado and Washington, it was put to the vote. The people themselves chose to legalise it and tax its use. We don’t have that kind of democracy. Here, the government decides what’s best for us. We can barely be trusted to dress ourselves without supervision.

Although more than 2 600 businesses applied for permits to grow and sell, fewer than 80 licences have been granted. I imagine it takes a while for any stoner to complete a 45-page application without getting distracted or making mistakes.

It’s estimated that in the next year, the Colorado state government will make $117-million dollars in taxes from the sale of cannabis. That’s R1.2-billion rand. South Africa could quadruple it, easily. The Eastern Cape could be turned into a giant plantation. They don’t seem to be doing much else with the land. And it would make driving through Mthatha a little more bearable.

But, no. Here we still have headlines like, “Surfing organisers deny drug allegations”.

My first thought was that the Mr Price Pro contest, held in Ballito a few days ago, was found to be awash in heroin. That the overseas surfers were riding boards made of compressed cocaine. That everyone on the beach was given a free Mr Price T-shirt and a complementary cap of acid.

Instead, an undercover cop, probably dressed like a holidaymaker from Benoni, bought a small bag of weed from a friend of a stallholder at the market on the beach. He was arrested and his stash confiscated. All fifteen hundred bucks worth. I feel so much safer knowing that officers like him are out there. Let’s hope the city gives him a medal.

In the end, we’re the ones who are going to be paying for this harmless dude to spend a few months behind bars. Fighting crime? Please. Three rhinos being poached every day is a crime. E-tolls are a crime. What the ANC’s Thandi Modise did to those animals on her farm is a crime. The civil service is knee-deep in criminals. Communications Minister Faith Muthambi claiming to have “applied her mind” before appointing Hlaudi Motsoeneng as chief operating officer of the SABC borders on the criminal. I doubt she applied much more than her lipstick before making that decision.

C’mon, Mr President. Let’s free up the cops and the courts to deal with real crime.