A 14-year-old boy named Wonder clambers out of the ocean and on to Durban’s South Beach, exhausted after hours of surfing, and collapses on the sand.
At the end of the day, he’ll return his surfboard to a nearby community centre and then curl up on a downtown sidewalk to sleep.
Wonder is among a dozen young black boys taking to the waves every day through a community group called Umthombo, which is coaching street kids in surfing and other sports to keep them off the street while providing counselling to find more lasting solutions to their problems.
“When I’m surfing, I don’t sniff glue. I want to leave it behind,” said Wonder.
His parents have both died, and he ran away from his uncle’s home, where Wonder says he was beaten and often denied meals.
He says he’d rather live on the streets than return to his uncle. In his tattered wetsuit, he’s found a new identity. After a year of surfing, he won second place in a local competition, scooping a trophy, a T-shirt and “a big bag of chips”.
Emma Sibilo, one of the social workers at Umthombo, said Wonder’s story is typical of the estimated 400 street kids in Durban. Most have turned to the streets after their parents died, or to escape abuse at home.
Life on the streets
But life on the streets exposes them to drugs and often forces them into gangs that wage violent turf wars in the city, she said.
“Surfing takes them away from drugs. They go there, they become active, they get fit, meaning they engage in less antisocial behaviour,” Sibilo said.
One of the smallest surfers is nine-year-old Khetho, who has spent most of his life on the streets. He sleeps with his three brothers on the sidewalk, has bounced in and out of temporary homes, but was mainly spending his time begging for money and sniffing glue.
Since he started surfing two years ago, he eats two meals a day at Umthombo and spends most of his days in the water.
“He used to sniff glue all the time, but now he barely uses it because he can’t surf properly when he sniffs,” said Tom Hewitt, who founded Umthombo in 1998.
From a nobody to a somebody
“When he’s wearing a wetsuit, he’s not considered a street kid. People tell him how good he’s doing. He’s gone from being a nobody to being a somebody, in his mind.”
Backed by private South African and British donors, Hewitt is expanding Umthombo’s centre and hopes to eventually provide shelter where kids can sleep at night.
In the run-up to the Soccer World Cup, Durban is transforming its oceanfront into a modern new boardwalk that will link the stadium and its dramatic 106-metre arch to five kilometres of beaches, hotels and restaurants.
As part of the urban clean-up, street kids like Khetho say they’re being regularly rounded up and taken 40km outside the city to a spartan facility meant for adults, where they’re left with little supervision.
“There is a shelter, but it’s for cripple people and mad people. You can’t stay with mad people,” Khetho said, adding that he walked back to the beach after being taken there.
“We don’t stay where we don’t know. We stay where we know,” he said.
The city denies that it has a policy of rounding up street kids, but metro police say they have to take action when residents complain.
“We intervene only when there is a complaint and a crime,” said police spokesperson Joyce Khuzwayo.
“They sleep outside, in front of people’s house. At night, they become a problem. When there is an event, they go and watch. Sometimes, they steal money, bags at the beachfront. People complain.”
Still, Wonder says he’s been rounded up 15 times, and every time he’s come back. But his treatment hasn’t put him off his dream, to one day become a policeman himself.
“They are not doing because they like to do it. They do it because their bosses make them,” he said.
For now, he sees surfing as his way off the streets, if he can win more competitions and attract companies to sponsor him.
“If you get a sponsor, you get money, you get clothes,” he said. “Everything, you can get.” – AFP