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Skateboarding | A tool for change | South Africa
July 2015

Skateboarding a tool for change

Skateboarding is much more than a pass time for teenage boys with attitude, reports CARIN HARDISTY. The skateboarding image has grown up and the activity is now being used to educate and improve lives in South Africa

Skateboarding in South Africa has been through it all, says James Brawn of Dragons Sports. “It’s been through the 70’s and 80’s when it was big, though the rough of the late 90’s and early 2000’s, and it is still ticking along.”

“Skate is very lucky that it has multiple disciplines/styles like vert, park, street, ramp, cruising, longboard, downhill, etc.,” he adds. “You also have the starters, core, recreational and competitive types of skaters. There will always be skaters.”

And there will always be an area of skating that should appeal to every level and type of skater, one could add.

“The longboarding market has grown and continues to grow as a market and as a sport or recreational activity,” says Gabrielle Murray-Roberts of the South African Gravity Racing Association (SAGRA). SAGRA represents about 300 active skateboarders.

“Over the past three years skateboarding has grown a lot,” agrees Riaan van Biljon of National Skateboarding Association (NSA). “More and more people are taking an interest in the lifestyle.”

“Skateboarding is clearly growing as a sport and as a mode of non-motorised mobility,” says Councillor Brett Herron, Mayoral Committee Member: Transport for Cape Town “We are building an inclusive city and are encouraging more and more people to look to how they can change their mobility patterns.”

The fact that more and more people are choosing non-motorised transport options, and a large number choosing skateboards, is great for skaters, says Murray-Roberts.

Cape Town has taken notice of this trend and started a skateboarding task team, which consists of councillors, city officials and members of the skateboarding community, who are represented through the National Skate Collective. As far as he is aware, Cape Town is the only city that has started such a task team, says Herron.

“We wanted to resolve any conflict that existed between our government and skateboarders who claimed to be marginalised and not catered for,” explains Herron, who established and chairs the task team.

The City of Cape Town has even won the Building Trust International PLAYscapes design competition for their skate park in Mill Street, because of the intelligent re-use of space that transformed an under-used underpass into a community-led skate park.

“Unsafe or dysfunctional spaces are a serious concern for the city and we are pleased to showcase just how these public spaces can be made safe and recreational for the people of Cape Town through design,” said Councillor Garreth Bloor, who at the time was the City’s Mayoral Committee Member for Economic, Environmental and Spatial Planning. “The space under the Mill Street bridge was one such space, but has now been turned into a skate park and transport hub in the city.” Across the road from the skatepark is a MyCiti bus station, which serves the City Bowl area.

The skateboarder is not seen as an unwanted presence any more, and this stereotype is being wiped away. “There is a lot more exposure and acceptance of skate in the media now and many events are being held across the country,” says Brawn.

“With the growing interest, more companies are getting involved and helping to get skateboarding the needed support to be able to compete on an international level,” adds Van Biljon.

Retailers benefit?

But, it is not clear that the growing number of events is generating more sales though, cautions Brawn. “Skateboarding is still an expensive sport. Having everything imported and dealing with the Rand/Dollar exchange rate doesn’t help and most skaters can’t afford to buy products as often as they need them.”

“We source some of the best products from overseas, trying to cover everything from entry level all the way to pro level stuff and do our best to keep our pricing down by trying to only order when the Rand/Dollar is best,” says Brawn. “If you’re in skateboarding to make money, you’re in the wrong business.”

“We’ve seen both a slight decline in general sales and also an adjustment of how some stores operate,” says Brawn. “The core skate stores are doing well as they have moved with the times, but the surf/sports stores are ordering less.”

“There’s a lot happening in the industry with stores closing, chains being acquired by new owners, core stores importing their own goods, etc.,” he adds.

The exchange rate does, however, have a good side to it: we are getting more international skaters/brands visiting and giving South Africa some great exposure, Brawn points out.

Youth development

Despite its traditional image as a rebellious activity, the sport is certainly becoming more accepted … to the point that it is being used as a tool to uplift and educate.

Four years ago, the Northern Cape Provincial Government launched the Skateboarding for Hope road show, which is a youth development initiative that promotes skateboarding as an affordable and accessible leisure activity. The road show forms part of the run-up to the Kimberley Diamond Cup skateboarding world championships presented by Kumba Iron Ore in October.

This year, the road show has 15 stops around the country in both urban and rural areas. Since its launch in 2011, the Skateboarding for Hope road show has hosted more than 500 activations and handed out more than 5 000 skateboards to underprivileged children.

The NSA is also working with the Kimberley Diamond Cup on development initiatives, through skate workshops and bringing skateboarding to underprivileged children.

“The Kimberly Cup contest is a very positive event attracting some of the top skateboarders in the world today with excellent prize money,” says Mark Powell of At Once Distribution, who was a founder and involved with Boogaloos for more than two decades.

The younger the skater finds interest in the sport, the better, he adds. “We need to excite younger participants from 5 years and older to get to the next generation to carry on. More hype is needed to introduce skateboarding to the youth.”

Powell is also involved with the Brightwater Commons skatepark and will soon be involved in the Stoneridge facility as well. “I have been involved in skateparks since 1991. During my journey with Boogaloos we placed a lot of our energy and resources into building skateparks, running events and building the industry: creating and developing the market. I was involved in the current skateparks since inception.”

“These facilities are reasonably well supported, considering there are not too many skateparks left in Gauteng and Pretoria,” he adds. “We are in desperate need to have more events of a higher standard. This will fuel the sport, industry and encourage younger participation therefore resulting in the facilities being better supported.”

One way through which Powell is putting action behind his words is through the Airwalk Skatefest, which is geared at BMX and skateboarders of all levels and age groups and takes place 18-20 September at the Brightwater Commons in Johannesburg. “It will be a high quality event that will be televised and will feature a unique event for U10 riders and skaters, called the U10 Expression Session,” says Powell. “Entrants will be able to utilise any action sports equipment they feel comfortable with to do their run. It’s a great way to encourage younger participation.”

Education and gender rights

As of the beginning of last year Skateistan — a non-profit organisation that uses skateboarding to empower low-income youths between the ages of 5-25 — in partnership with their biggest supporters, focused their sights on Johannesburg.

The group cleaned the David Webster Park in Troyesville — it already had a skate bowl — and started giving bi-weekly lessons: an hour of teaching the children about the world around them, followed by skateboarding lessons. The Skateistan group provides skateboards, helmets, and knee and wrist guards for the sessions.

They are also involved at the youth centre on Harrison Street, which is associated with Let’s Go Jozi and youth NGO Oasis, where they have been given access to the rooftop and have built a skate ramp and half-pipe surrounded by safety netting. Here the sessions follow a similar outline as in David Webster Park, with education, arts and skateboarding all working together.

Skateistan also has plans to start an educational facility in Maboneng, Johannesburg. Chris Ray, who designed courses for California Skateparks prior to joining Skateistan’s international division, will be in charge of designing and building the outdoor skatepark at the facility.

Skateboarding is a way to build the children’s confidence and to show them the world is so much bigger than their home town, Ayanda Mnyandu, Skateistan’s local operations officer, told Mail & Guardian (Lessons from Kabul teach Jozi kids to skate on skylines, 30 April to 7 May 2015).

One of South Africa’s top women’s skaters, Kelly Murray (Kimberley Diamond Cup South African Women’s Street Champion), is also actively involved as the team’s sports coordinator. By including top women’s skaters, the group is also trying to combat the stereotype that skateboarding is only for guys.

Only about 5% of skateboarders worldwide are female, Skateistan estimates. Because of this, the group puts in extra effort with girls who are interested in learning to skate. The older the girl, however, the more self-conscious she tends to be about getting onto a skateboard for the first time.

Almost half (more than 40%) of Skateistan’s students worldwide are girls and the organisation has won several awards, including the United Nations’ Golden Dove for Peace.

Skateistan was founded to address gender inequality, by creating equal opportunities. It started almost eight years ago when Australian Oliver Percovich was in Kabul, Afghanistan, skateboarding. The unusual (in Kabul) activity attracted the attention of youngsters.

Especially the girls: a girl riding a bicylcle is frowned upon culturally, but skateboarding?

Here was a loophole, which the girls eagerly made use of.

They estimate that about 40% of Afghanistan skaters are female, due to Skateistan’s involvement there.

Skateistan has been expanded to Cambodia and now to South Africa, from where they hope to expand further into the rest of Africa.


Two of the biggest problems faced by the skateboarding market are funding and that it is not legal to skate on public roads.

“There is not enough funding in the sport and there is a lot of pressure on the supplier and retail industry to provide funding for things like events, which help grow and promote the sport,” says Murray-Roberts.

The issue of not being allowed to skate on public roads is especially a problem for downhill skaters, Murray-Roberts points out. “A street skater can still use a skatepark, whereas skateparks are more or less useless for downhill skaters.”

While skateparks offer skaterboarders safe areas in which to practice their chosen sport, they also fence in the freedom associated with skateboarding. The National Skate Collective, which represents members of the skateboarding community, is trying to get a by-law introduced that will allow skateboarders to skate on the roads legally.

“We are looking at how we can allow skateboarding on our roads and non-motorised transport lanes,” adds Herron. “We are also looking at a more collaborative approach to skatepark development.”

“We have debated and settled on proposed conditions for skateboarding on our roads as a mode of mobility,” he says. “These will be incorporated into the draft Non-Motorised Transport By-law, which will go for public participation and hopefully receive support for approval. We have also had a team assess all of the existing skateparks for the purposes of addressing their use and design.”

“Furthermore, the two main skating disciplines (street and downhill) have joined forces and formed a collective [the South African Skateboarding Federation] with a goal to register skateboarding with SASCOC, which will legitimise skateboarding in South Africa and provide an affiliation to the IOC,” says Murray-Roberts.

“We are reaching out to government departments for advice, support and guidance. Even Premier Helen Zille stated she would back and support us if and where she could. With the legitimising of skating we would be able to access funding from government.“

Another issue is that of keeping those skateparks that now exist going, says Powell. “A problem is keeping participants excited and keeping skateboarding in the public eye.”

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