Going it Alone: The Surf Boycott of South Africa 1985

For Tom Carroll the Australian concept of the fair go didn’t know and recognise geographic boundaries. By 1984 Carroll had serious misgivings about competing in Pro Surfing competition in South Africa. He first visited there in 1981 and was shocked at what he saw in both in the surfing community and the society in general. He considered the segregation of beaches abhorrent and could not see how it was fair that black people did not have the right to swim with everyone else.

When the father of one South African surfer told Carroll that Australia was lucky because all our Aborigines had been killed he understood that people, who were otherwise friendly and pleasant, had no qualms about openly displaying their murderous hatred of black South Africans. After winning the Gunston500 in Durban that year Carroll says he felt “ashamed” and believed that by competing there he might be contributing to the maintenance of Apartheid in South Africa. (1.)

In 1985, immediately after winning the World Surfing Championship at Bells Beach in Victoria, Carroll announced he would boycott the South African leg of the tour to protest against Apartheid. He said that he would boycott events in South Africa until all black surfers were allowed on all South African beaches.(5) In doing so he risked points the world title in the future, lost his main sponsorship from the South African affiliated Instinct Clothing and was attacked in the press and at competition by fellow surfers.

At the Australian Surfing Hall of Fame in Torquay immediately after Carroll made his announcement, runner up South African Shaun Tomson, spoke against the idea of a boycott. “If you don’t support South Africa, then voice your opinions, but support pro surfing. I don’t stand here tonight in defense of South Africa. I stand here as a surfer in defense of pro surfing.”

The national media picked up the story and Carroll was forced to justify his decision to a hostile public alone. Even more concerning for Carroll was the possibility of being disqualified from pro surfing altogether and the threat of a sponsorship blacklisting by the Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP).

“ASP director Ian Cairns more or less took Tomson’s position and juiced it up with anger and hardcore surf-capitalism cravenness. I interviewed Cairns in 1985, right after the tour returned from South Africa, and he straight-faced told me that the boycott didn’t affect the events.” (5.)

In years to follow the ASP fined surfers who refused to compete in South Africa.Prime Minister Bob Hawke, a veteran of the Anti Apartheid campaign in Australia, offered Carroll a lifeline. He promised Government support for any legal costs if the matter went to court.

Martin Potter, by then resident in Australia, and Tom Curren, the California star, joined Carroll in the boycott. Potter, born in England, was raised in South Africa, and had migrated to Australia. He was an important ally, as he was well known in both the South African and Australian surf scenes. He said, “growing up, the idea of blacks and whites being separated and living under different sets of laws was all I knew. It seemed quite natural. But traveling has opened my eyes.” (4.) any who chose to make the ‘sport and politics don’t mix’ argument. ‘The vast majority of pros, along with most surfers in general, were fence sitters. Willfully uninformed. Year after year, prior to apartheid’s dismantling in the early ’90s, the tour took place Durban the same way it always had.” (5.)

By 1989, twenty-five out of the top thirty surfers had joined the boycott. “Pro surfing owes the sport a groveling apology for standing—stupidly, belligerently—on the wrong side of history. What Carroll, Potter, Curren, did by not going to South Africa in 1985 looks even better in hindsight, because they were under no pressure from their professional organization to do so, like virtually all other athletes around the world. Tennis players and golfers got wrist-slapped for competing in South Africa. Surfers got wrist-slapped for not competing” (5.)

In 1992 Tom Carroll was inducted into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame. At his valedictory dinner in 1995, Bob Hawke summed up Tom Carroll’s contribution to the Anti-Apartheid cause.

“His beliefs, his principles, were so strong that he put those in front of everything else and as I recall there has been no example in the history of Australian sport where a champion has been prepared to put principles so manifestly in front of his or her own interests as Tom Carroll did in 1985.” (4.)

Draft Surf wall

Cheyne Horan, riding his Free Mandela Board in Jeffreys Bay 1985. This image is the draft of panel from “Memories of the Struggle: Australians Against Apartheid”, at the Museum of Australian Democracy Canberra 2016. Pic © Paul ‘Gordinho’ Cohen

Cheyne Horan felt he could not afford to lose points in building his career or his sponsorship money, so he made the decision to protest in a different way. He decided to go to South Africa and ride a board with FREE MANDELA painted on it, knowing Nelson Mandela was Public Enemy No 1 in South Africa, and was in prison serving the twenty-first year of what would be twenty-seven years.

Riding the Free Mandela board in South Africa made Horan the target of bullying by officials, strident criticism from surfers, harassment and eventually death threats.

“When I was riding that board I took it to Cape Town, I was asked to take the Free Mandela off my board by a lot of people. I was staying with a mate there and the locals were saying to him, tell Shane to take the Free Mandela off his board. I said I wouldn’t, but I told my mate I would move out if he wanted me to. He said, I want you to stay, just take that thing off your board. I said no again, and explained the principle. Then my board got a ding in it, so I took it down to the board factory and the black guys who worked in the factory fixed it for me. When the white guy who owned the factory brought it to me he said the guys at the factory were so stoked about the board that they fixed it for free.”

Horan decided to donate the prize money he won at the Durban competition to the ANC. Some pundits believe that by riding the FREE MANDELA board in South Africa, Horan had more impact on South African surfing than the boycott.

In 1989 when the Barbados Government declared that anyone competing in South Africa would be barred from competition that year, an exception was made for Cheyne Horan because he had ridden the Free Mandela board in South Africa in 1985.

“Amid all complicated politics, both of a country and a professional sport, Tom Curren, Martin Potter, Cheyne Horan, and Tom Carroll picked a side, stuck to their guns, and eventually played a vital role in putting an end to a very, very dark patch on human history.” (4.)

Research Documents.

  1. Laderman, Scott. Reds, Revolutionaries, and Racists: Surfing, Travel, and Diplomacy in the Reagan Era. Diplomatic Games: Sport, Statecraft, and International Relations Since 1945. Ed. HEATHER L. DICHTER and ANDREW L. JOHNS. University Press of Kentucky, 2014
  2. Bob and Tom…and Nelson Mandela: The Rearview Mirror. Stu Nettle
  3. The 1980s: Surfing, Politics, and Apartheid. TROPICS OF META. Opening the Waves for Everyone: Surfing, Race, and Political Awareness . by RYAN REFT
  4. Alexander Haro The Inertia: Disruptors is a series that identifies the most groundbreaking moments in surf history.
  5. Matt Warsaw Boycott 1985: South Africa’s Line in the Sand



Permanent Removal: A new novel by Alan S Cowell.


Permanent Removal takes place in the Western Cape while Nelson Mandela is still in charge and the Rainbow Nation is in full flight. American ex diplomat, Thomas J Kinzer, revisits South Africa to participate in a conference. It is no longer the world of the liberation struggle that he came to know as a young press officer in the US consulate, peopled by the desperate young in search of a cause, each doing what they could to contribute to the revolution. The story hinges around the TRC and the hideous truths it made public, the assassinations of the UDF years. It is a timely choice of topic, given the restive nature of South Africa at present, the distribution of wealth, and the way those that prospered from apartheid continue to prosper, while the poor grow poorer.

Most of the action takes place in Plettenberg Bay and the surrounding area during a week of summer. An exquisite backdrop, glittering with brittle wealth and insular, slightly incestuous connections buried deep in struggle history. The people Kinzer finds himself among are a far cry from the widows he has promised to help, and are not a particularly likeable lot, but they are true to type, right down to their neurotic attachments and the fuzzy lines of stories told too often. His investigation drags into the light the fabric of half-truths and suspicions, of concealed failures and secrets that riddled the lives of those who rejected their white privilege, those who died and those who betrayed the cause. The widows of slain black activists still grieve, their children want answers and the young radical white left are now middle-aged people and rich, protective of their past, their friendships, and their weaknesses. The white right do not fare as well, at least those who were the foot soldiers of apartheid, the men who made up the dreaded Koevoet and the death squads that did the dirty work all over the region for their masters in Pretoria.

Kinzer begins personal investigation, his atonement for the US policy of Constructive Engagement in South Africa, as soon as the conference ends. His skills allow him to slip into the diverse world of the new South Africa seamlessly, but he is ashamed now, because he moved on to an international career leaving behind a dead friend, widowed women and orphaned children to manage alone in a truly malevolent time. He feels he owes the widows to try and get the full story, and he is no longer trammelled by the requirements of being a representative of Washington.

Alan Cowell is a senior correspondent with The New York times, and more importantly from the point of view of this novel, a Reuters correspondent from 1972, during which time he had extensive Southern African experience and grew to know the various nationalist struggles that took place in the Southern African region very well. His familiarity allows the tissued layers of deceit and romanticism that make up the story to be torn away in a revealing way. The search for the truth will keep you guessing till the very end.

Tracks: Eastern Cape Diary.

We are leaving Plettenberg Bay again, sneaking away from Anni the cat, who is not fooled. It’s ok. She will stay home and be petted by others, but we feel bad anyway.

Windfarms above Jeffreys Bay- on to Grahamstown. Shabby looking streets, women with yellow faces in traditional dress, Freedom Day finery on show. Waffles and coffee in a sad cafe where the owner, in spite of having a jovial relationship with his staff, nearly told me Mandela was not all he was cracked up to be. I was surprised. Hardly encountered that attitude at all on this visit. I stopped him before I would have had to slap him.

Federation Style

Federation Style

On to Peddie to get map at Engen where the chaos was magnificent- cars and vans jammed hooting, meat pie mayhem inside. No maps, no knowledge of route to Hogsback and a great deal of friendly interest that I should be there at all. Took the road to King Williams Town – views of the sea from the flat rise below the Amatole Mountains, electrified townships in the foothills, then up through toward Alice- anxious no map.

Hogsback Mountains

Found the turning to Hogsback. (Colonel Hogge, founder, plus rocky ridges known as Hogs, three in all.) Checked into Inn.


Walked to Arboretum 39 steps to waterfall. Soggy paths strewn with autumn leaves over bright green moss. A kind and very beautiful youth in pale green jeans and perfect light blue tackies assisted me and mother over a particularly soggy bit, then went off through the trees. See a family making a fire. Five lovely children. Baby in car, ma and pa tending the fire while the older children played with palm fronds on huge stump. Father greeted me with the age old double handshake. A freedom day celebration.

mossy ground

Family meal

Beautiful play on a beautiful day

Drunken gaiety down the main road, people the worse for wear but very happy. Back to the Inn as darkness falls. Curried veg, beer shandy and electric blankets. A good sleep and a splendid breakfast.

Morning ride to St Patricks chapel, rebuilt after burning down. Held Noo’s hand as she prayed for Pete and his dicky heart. A Prayer Walk with a few late rhododendrons in bloom and riotously coloured fungi. Only the old stone wall testament to the age of the place, and the plaques with names corroded off that spoke of those contained in the wall of remembrance. Thoughts of Stephen.

Then to the edge. Bluff walk and back through the cottages with old cape walled gardens to the Labyrinth and a quiet moment contemplating the view, listening to the silence. In the dining room we had delicious coffee, admired the brilliant light fittings made of aloe stooks and emanel bowls.

The Edge
The Edge Gardens

fab fence

Those lighfittings.

The labyrinth

Koi pond
Off toward Alice for the drive to Addo, past Fort Hare where I think of Biko whose face I have seen on a Hogsback poster, months out of date.

Have Your Say

Have Your Say

Then into Fort Beaufort where I buy a shwe shwe skirt for Edna from a huge lady with a bad back and a beautiful face dusted ochre, lips stained black. She is magnificent. I am too shy to ask for a picture. Swiftly toward Gtown on good road. We turn off early. Now the most rutted dirt road, rainwater chasms striating the loose white dust, following in the wake of a six wheeled pantech trailer, past Shamwari to Patterson to fill up then on to Addo.

The cottage is fabulous. Sunset walk to game fence.
Glorious skies and a light shower. Game drive tomorrow.

lichen webbing

Blue Bush

Golden finale

Marimba 1959. Excerpt from “An Interstitial Existence – Short Story of My Life” ©Kate Habib 2010.

Image         I am four years old when I see the Southern Cross in the night sky for the first time, and I learn the word Constellation, a big word to describe a group of stars that make a picture. The Southern Cross looks to me like a kite flying high in the night, it’s sparkling tail trailing. My grandfather Kulu teaches me about stars and lots of other interesting stuff.


I have six dark beauty spots scattered across my forearm in the tiny forest of blonde hair. Kulu says “like a tattoo of the Southern Cross” and so I believe these dots mark me a Southern Rhodesian. I am too young to know that beauty spot tattoos are just nonsense and that Kulu is a big tease. My Ouma says my imagination is overdeveloped, stimulated by my life at home in the Marimba Valley where I roam free, barefoot like a piccanin, with Kulu telling me tall tales day and night. My Ouma makes me wear shoes on the farm when I visit her and my other Grandfather, Oupa in the holidays.


After lunch with my brother Danny today, I loiter down the drive while he sits at the dining room table doing his homework in the dark inside. I know if I wait on the couch while he finishes up, I’ll fall asleep and miss out on an afternoon adventure. But I’d rather go to the river with him, so I dawdle barefoot on the cool grass between the hot squares of the concrete driveway, hoping he finishes before I reach the road.


The square pavers of are smeared with coloured chalk, drawings, hopscotch and noughts and crosses played pointlessly against myself this morning while Danny is at school and all the grown ups are at work. Each day I fill the pavers with chalk and every evening Phineas, the Garden Guardian washes it all off with the watering can. He says I must call him GG because I am too young to use his first name and because he is very fast, like a racehorse. And he is. He can run to the shops in under 7 minutes. It takes me 15 minutes and I get a stitch. GG trims the edges every week with his big garden scissors so each paver is outlined in sharp, green grass. Ouma says between GG and Kulu my head is stuffed with nonsense.


Standing down the driveway, like sentries, are eight trim ‘Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow’ bushes, twice my height and many times wider, squat flowered columns scenting the hot air. The name is easy to remember. I sniff the lilac scent as I walk close to one and notice a big green praying mantis watching me from a blossom above my head. Angry at being interrupted in her hunting, the mantis slices at me with her serrated arms. I jump, terrified by her swivelling goggle eyes and the way she watches me, waits until I am looking in them before she rises up to attack. She is much craftier than me, in control of the bush. Heart thumping, I walk away, fast, not really running, just in case someone is watching, laughing at me. I cannot see anyone as I look over my shoulder, just the garden reflected in the big plate glass door of the living room.   


There is no gate on our driveway and a bougainvillea arches up out of the front hedge raining crimson flowers, then the street, the vlei, the river beyond, then the hills thick with Msasa trees. My dad built this arch out of steel and trained the bougainvillea, a red arch over the opening, bordered by a high clipped yellow flowering hedge. I stand on the fallen red flowers, soft and papery on the sharp gravel. We live in the middle of the block. The hedge joins our plot to the neighbours on either side of the drive. I look left, and then right down the street. No cars. The road shimmers, a mirage hovers down the end, smeared and spooky looking. I see a blue and white Mabvuku bus thundering down the main road, its wheels rippling, and a trail of diesel in the hot air behind.


It is my world.


On the dirt roadside beyond the gravel drive, in front of the grass verge, the antlions live in their dens, smooth cones of soft red dust tunnelled down to a sharp point. I pull a blade of grass and spill grains of dust down the slope like a falling ant might. Out pops the antlion, ready to eat, pincers waving. I flip him up with my grass blade, a soft, dusty curl onto my palm. I feel his segmented body gently with my finger, and then I drop him back on the top of his ruffled den. He burrows under the dusty edge like it’s a blanket, and scurries all the way to the bottom. There he rests, a hungry bump. I catch an ant and drop it down there to make him feel better.


I squat at the roadside, see the tree line of the river, imagine the clear brown water moving through the willow trees. I hobble across the stony pavement to the road. The edge is cracked, eroded by the crashing rains that wash the late afternoons in summer, dry and bitten in the lunchtime sun. I smell the melting tar, it’s bumpy surface sharp and hot on my soles, a ribbon of sparkling charcoal that divides the suburb from the wilderness. I hurry across to a cool clump of grass and cool my burning feet on it. The smell of crushed green fills the air.


I hop from one grass clump to the next toward the path. Suddenly my mouth is bone-dry, my tongue rasping. I stop, concentrating on making spit; it won’t come, so I concentrate harder. It begins to come but I rest here, look back to our house and remember the road in the veldt fire at the end of last winter.


Small animals, rats, frogs, snakes fled onto the road ahead of the fire, panicked. Rows of black workers gathered on the road choosing their prey for the evening meal, whacking it with whatever was at hand; budzas, spades, machetes, even smoldering branches. They laughed and shouted, while khaki schoolboys batted the edges of the flames with wet sacks, yelling.


Filaments of burnt grass floated, black threads among the scorched insects rocketing around. Brown smoke rose up into blue, and the undulating line of crackling flames stopped only when it hit the tarmac. The smell of fire was overpowering. Peter Brown chased me with a dead mamba draped over a stick. Lucky I was a fast runner.


After months of summer rain, the long grass shines gold and smoky purple. I step onto the cool, black mud of the path, muttering the swear words my brother taught me at lunchtime, committing them to memory. My cooling feet begin to itch and I grind them into the grass, scratching, reciting, “Hell and Damnation. Bugger. Bitch. Bastard. Jesus Wept.” The watery mud of the vlei rises in the squashed grass, worms of black cresting between my toes.


I see the scorching in the base of the grass, although the old burn is thick with green stems and gold leaves. Seed heads rattle as I trail my hand across them and the mud squelches under my squirming soles. When they stop itching, I walk down the path. The grass as high as my head gets higher as the path winds into the vlei. The river willows are visible in the distance and I imagine their thin arms like hair, hanging in rivulets of shade into the water. My tongue is rough again, sticking to the roof of my mouth, and the gum behind my lower front teeth burns. The river is far away and I’ve swum in it many times and know it is muddy, not good to drink. 


I crouch down to inspect the clump of grass, pus my hands in to push the outer stems aside to reach the sweet grass in the centre. The symmetry of the hairs on my arms distracts me for a moment, particularly where it turns into sworls near my elbows. I twist them inwards to look, then peer closer into the grass. In the centre of the clump, I see the telltale sign, a hint of purple in the stalk. I know that means sweet and juicy, and the end will be white, fat, soft. My shoulders and head are cool in the shade of the tall grass, and the smell is delicious, sun baked grass underscored by the boggy redolence of black mud. My mouth waters.


I hear the grass whisper and look down the path. A small tortoise crosses the path, quite close. I watch it scrape its way across the black bottom, scrabble up the edge, wrinkled legs stretching, straining on the slippery slope, then it disappears quickly, a rustling in the grass. I wonder if it is the same one that lives in the rainwater drainpipe in our front garden sometimes.


I get back to the grass and find a good stalk. Carefully tracing the length of it with my fingers until I’m about half way to the top, I stand and pull it carefully, squeezed between both palms so the stem doesn’t break. A small screech signals surrender as it shudders loose from the sheath. I inspect the drooping end of the stalk before I put it into my mouth, my tongue cradles the bouncy softness, and I suck it gently before chewing, relishing the moment. The fairy soft seed-head tickles my bare shoulder, a feather touch. This first taste of clean grass is the best part. It tastes like the air around me smells.


Home again after my swim, I take a deep warm bath. My shins and arms sting from tiny grass cuts as I lie back in the hot water. Afterwards, dressed in my short pajamas, I sit on the slate front step to wait for my grandfather Kulu to come home.  I have prepared everything for our sundowners, an ashtray, a giant metal bottle opener and two glass tankards, his big, mine small. I am standing by.


Kulu’s car rolls up the driveway thump thumping on the wet pavers. He walks across the slate patio to the front door. In his hands are a brown quart of beer and white lemonade, both cold from the fridge at the shops. He sits next to me on the step and I kiss his cheek, rough with grey beard at the end of the day. Below the smell of sawdust and cigarettes is the smell of Old Spice, still there from early this morning’s shave. I smell it when I kiss him goodbye, when his cheeks are smooth.

“Hello Katie. Standing by?” He always says the same thing.

I nod, holding his glass out to him with two hands as he taught me. It is heavy with a strong curved handle and circles cut around the thick sides. Kulu opens the beer, takes his glass and pours, then he hands me the big bottle half full, slippery with condensation. I hold it in both hands to pour a bit my glass, concentrating hard so as not to drop the bottle or knock the glass over.


Kulu teases me when I concentrate because I bite my tongue and he says I shouldn’t. What if one day I fall over and knock my chin while biting my tongue? I’ll bite my tongue off! When he says this, I get a funny feeling in my bottom. I can see the bit of tongue lying on the ground. He also says the wind might change and I’ll be caught with my tongue sticking out, but that one doesn’t scare me so much.

“Is this an inch Kulu?” I hold my glass up to him.

“Close enough.” He says. He has told me that’s all I’m allowed until I turn twenty-one. I tuck my tongue in and top my shandy with lemonade from the small bottle.


Holding my glass carefully with both hands, I sit beside Kulu on the top step as he lights a cigarette. I tell him about the mantis on the bush, the tortoise I saw, the good swings on the willow leaves. How Dan never came even though I swam for ages. Kulu says we can collect mushrooms in the forest tomorrow, just after sunrise. Then, if we are lucky, we can have them for breakfast, cooked with butter. I nod as I take small sips of my shandy. The beer taste is strongest in the foam at the top of the glass. I taste it in my nose as well as on my tongue.


We watch the sun squeeze heavily into the black Marimba Hills, getting fatter each minute and very bright. Pink sweeps across in the curly gold clouds high above. The brightness makes the forest of hairs on my arms glow and each one has a tiny, clear shadow. The evening star and the sickle moon rise up into the deep blue sky. By the time I suck the last of the webbed foam from my glass, Kulu has finished another cigarette and the rest of the quart and there are lots of stars sparking in the blue-black. Constellations.