"The next South African championship tour surfer might be in this room," were not words thrown around in a high-performance training center by the country's top surfing coach. No, it was in an open room with painted walls in Durban's ‘Surfers Not Street Children' beach center a couple of nights ago.
And the motivational speaker? Sal Masekela, it doesn't get much better than that. For the two dozen kids in the room, the face of action sports on multiple TV networks across the world spoke right through to their hearts.
Masekela is currently visiting South Africa as an ambassador for the Ballito Pro pres by O'Neill and followed Tom Hewitt for a visit of his ‘Surfers Not Street Children' operation in Durban. We've recently caught up with Tom, here are a few excerpts from an hour-long inspiring conversation with the founder.
The British born-and-raised activist has spent over 30 years working in South Africa, originally supporting the anti-Apartheid movement lead by Nelson Mandela. A trip to Mozambique during the civil war in 1990 opened his eyes on the harsh reality of homeless kids in Africa and sparked the start of his work with children.
"At that time surfing was not involved," he explained. "One day I was surfing in Durban and one of the kids came on to the pier and he was like ‘hey Tom I want to surf'. I knew the kid could swim and the swell was small and clean. So he jumped off the pier, I put my leg rope on him and pushed him in a wave, and all the way up to the beach I could just hear him scream ‘wooooooo', hooting. Then he ran up the pier and he wanted to go again."
Right there and then, Hewitt realized "All of the stoke and joy I get from surfing, what about introducing it as part of a program with the kids?". That was in 1998, and the first step towards creating what we now know as ‘Surfers Not Street Children'.
The small crew has grown into a large operation involving carers, social workers, lifeguards and coaches, and a satellite has developed in Mozambique as well. Hewitt tells us more about what it looks like, 20 years on.
"We've had hundreds of kids come through the program over the last twenty years, and we have three parts of the project: there's a beach base at New Pier, we call that the surf club but it's a drop-in center. It's a day time program for kids on the streets and for kids living in terrible conditions in hostels in the local area. There's a team of social workers there. Then we have a surf house, which is a living residential facility for those who are really desperate with no place to go. And then we have another living facility for the independent living program. This is for the ones who have come through the program and are starting to work and need a bit of support before they can get strong on their feet."
All the work Tom Hewitt and his team have been doing since the 90s have changed lives forever and we as surf fans might soon be able to see it too. As much as surfing was originally introduced as almost therapeutic, a few kids have actually developed a strong passion and started to actually train and perform. Which brings us to our title: could the next South African CT surfer come from that room?
"We've had kids come through the program that have gone on to do great things, sometimes extraordinary things and sometimes just the ordinary which is already fantastic for street kids which had no chance before. Someone like Ntando Msibi has become a pro surfer. He's a free surfer and does some contests as well, but he's well sponsored and also has a full-time job in a surf shop."
And the current world's best obviously can help the cause.
"We were really fortunate to have Steph Gilmore come visit our program in Mozambique which was fantastic, it inspires the kids, they're blown away. She's powerful and stylish, and such a good surfer that all of a sudden girls go ‘oh wait, good surfers are not just guys'. We've had Dane Reynolds, Kelly Slater who did a film about us, obviously Jordy Smith who's been a big supporter for many years, the Gudauskas brothers who did a board drive to raise equipment and all that."
If you want to keep up with the organization and their great work, give them a follow on Instagram @surfersnotstreetchildren.
Also, if you want to directly support them by giving equipment you may not need anymore, please know they're in need of short soft boards under 6', grommet high-performance boards under 5'10 as well as leashes, fins and kid sized thin wetsuits.