18 November, 2016 18 November, 2016

Surfing Confronting Trauma In South Africa

A large number of children in South Africa grow up in violent and abusive environments. One organization has chosen a somewhat different approach to counteract the issues. Waves for Change uses the power of the ocean and its´ therapeutic benefits, a hook that might be able to inspire real change.

“We try to address kids who are off track and replace their negative risky behaviour with positive risky behaviour, being surfing. Cape Town is windy, cold and sharky. Surfing here is a challenge and it helps you with all aspects of life,” says Matt Mattilla from Waves for Change.


When Tim Conibear arrived in Cape Town he became conscious of that surfing was a privilege for a minority of the city’s inhabitants and he predominantly saw ‘white’ people catching waves. Tim started to let children from township communities ride with him to the beach in his pickup truck. He realized that surfing helped the children to talk about daily hardships and together with his friend Bongani Ndlovu Tim founded Waves for Change in 2011. Since then the organization has had a positive impact in several Capetonian township communities.

Violence in Cape Town has increased during the last decades and the beaches, attracting surfers from all the corners of the globe, make up an idyllic facade of a city where crime and trauma are common features. South Africa has one of the best child protection legislations in the world but the enforcement of rights is lacking. Over a third of the children in the Waves for Change program live with somebody who is abusive, an alcoholic or incarcerated but the legislative support is proving difficult to find.


© W4C Image Supplied

Providing a Platform for Change

Matt Mattilla from Waves for Change points out that toxic stress is a problem in the townships and that the organization tries to create a platform from which the root causes for behaviour can be changed. While the average Westerner experience is three traumatic incidents in a lifetime, children in the townships experience six a year. It can be the death of a loved one, physical attack or rape. Surfing consequently becomes a way of developing healthy coping mechanisms. Waves for Change provides young adults from townships with the necessary means to become certified surf coaches. They learn how to swim, how to become lifeguards and are finally provided with a child youth care worker certification. The idea is that the coaches become mentors for the children, building a bond of trust through mutual experiences. But surfing is just a hook. Most of the work consists of engaging with the communities through teachers and parents, in order to reach children in need of support.


© W4C Image Supplied

Waves for Change combines surfing with psycho-education, where talking sessions and interactive exercises are important aspects. There is also access to a social worker and a psychologist. Even the coaches talk to the psychologist on a regular basis. Both teachers and parents express that the program has a positive impact on the children’s general wellbeing in comparison to other children from the same background. Matt points out that surfing differs from other sports where aggression is awarded. Instead he sees surfing as a unique experience providing plenty of opportunities for failure and stress.

“When you are surfing you need to recognize your anger or sadness and calm down. It is hard if you are traumatized. In that context adrenalin helps. But under water you run out of oxygen really quickly. Panicking and thrashing is not going to work,” Matt says.


© W4C Image Supplied

Towards the Future

Working within the South African context has its challenges, as the structural problems due to the relic of Apartheid are not easily solved. It is not uncommon that a burned train or a gang-warfare sometimes prohibits coaches or children from showing up for a surf session. Surfing cannot solve socio-economic deprivation on its own. Matt explains that their work is nothing compared to parents having employment or teachers showing up to school. The road to success often lies in simple solutions such as giving the children a proper meal before the session, since many are nutritionally deficient. A sandwich before the surfing session results in that the learning scores go up.


© W4C Image Supplied

There is little money to be made in surfing and Matt is aware that substantial economic support from the surfing community in South Africa is a far-fetched dream. Even so, the bar for the future is set high. While the plan is to hand over the operational work in Cape Town to the local community, the objective is also to expand in South Africa. The next step is to look at places like Somalia, Liberia and Ghana. The main thing is to aim at vulnerable post-conflict communities with access to surfable ocean and youth that don’t have the best opportunities.


© Matt Mattilla

Children in the Waves for Change Program

  • 56% have been victims of violence
  • 45% have seen someone killed
  • 45% have seen a family member being taken away by authorities
  • 45% eat less than they should
  •  25% report being sexually abused
  • 33% report being physically abused
  • 31% live with someone with an alcohol problem
  • 20% live with someone with a drug problem

Data collected by University of Cape Town and Waves for Change, August 2015

For more information on Wave for Change click HERE and HERE.


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