Glen Thompson, Stellenbosch University (Western Cape, South Africa)

Glen Thompson is a research associate in the Department of History at Stellenbosch University. In December 2014 he completed his PhD dissertation, which focused on surfing, gender and politics in South Africa (1960 – 2000s). He first started working on critical surfing and beach histories in 1996 after completing a MA in History at the University of Natal (Durban), now the University of KwaZulu-Natal (Durban Campus), on the changing poetics and politics of charismatic Christianity in Durban, South Africa (1976-1994). He started his working life lecturing history at the University of Durban Westville and economic history at the University of Natal (Durban). He then stepped away from the academy for a decade and worked in land restitution, applied socio-economic research, and the Internet technology and mobile messaging industries before returning to his academic history interests, taking up part-time lecturing in history at Stellenbosch University (2006 to 2008) and then, in 2009, starting a doctoral programme to pursue critical surfing history studies in southern Africa.

Thompson at Supers, Jeffrey’s Bay, South Africa. September 2013. Photo: Ross Turner

Glen’s first tentative engagement with surfing histories was a presentation in a panel titled “Surfin’ Safaris: Race, Gender and Narratives of Imperialism in Surf Culture” on Zigzag surfing magazine’s narratives of gender and race at the 1997 MELUS Conference at the University of Hawai’i. Since then his writings on South African surfing histories have included: the making of surfing masculinities in a chapter in Robert Morrell’s Changing Men in South Africa (2001) and an article in the Journal of Natal and Zulu History (2008); surfing and the making of the post-apartheid beach in an article in The International Journal of the History of Sport (2011); and surfing’s cultural politics during of the anti-apartheid sports boycott in Scarlett Cornelissen and Albert Grundlingh’s Sport Past and Present in South Africa: (Trans)forming the Nation (2012). He recently collaborated with Meg Samuelson in studying the South African beach in the film Otelo Burning (2011) in the Contemporary Conversations section of the Journal of African Cultural Studies (2014); his article on Zulu surfing histories contextualised the film’s use of surfing and Zuluness in opening up the apartheid past. He is currently working on southern Africanist studies of black surfing histories, changing femininities with the South African surfing lifestyle, and opening up research on surfing and racialised leisure consumption under beach apartheid. Taken together, these socio-cultural studies exploring the nature of the post-apartheid beach today and offer counter-histories to the whiteness of the South African beach. His academic work has also been presented as an art installation; his “Fragments of surfing’s pasts” was part of the Beyond the Beach Exhibition, curated by Paul Weinberg (September-October 2014).

“Fragments of Surfing’s Pasts” Exhibition, Muizenberg, Cape Town, 2014. Photo: Cobus Joubert/WAWA

Glen’s surfing path began as a pre-teen on polystyrene boards that did not see out two or three days of shore-break waves during Summer holidays. However, it was in the early 1980s, when an older cousin passed on his later 70’s shaped Lightning Bolt single fin, that Glen that became a teen “surf rat” escaping on weekends and school holidays to the Durban beach and bringing his board on family coastal holidays. He experienced the South African transition from the beach, and these experiences of social change at the beach during his university years in the 1990s, opened up questions about surfing’s relationship to the apartheid past. At the same time he began experimenting with non-hegemonic forms of wave-riding, moving between shortboards and a longboard, eschewing contest surfing. In 2000 he relocated to Cape Town, pulled on thick neoprene and took to the Atlantic Ocean’s cold-water swells. In 2007 he began exploring the nascent sport of stand-up paddle boarding (SUP). For his doctoral research, from 2009, he began surfing competitively in regional and national amateur longboard and SUP contests as a way of experiencing the judge’s gaze, and took to experimenting with retro boards as a means of embodying past surfing stylistics. He also got involved in organised surfing by co-founding the national body for SUP in 2010 and a local club for tandem surfing in 2013.

SUP surfing a Southern Cape point break, 2014. Photo: Ross Turner

Glen has also been involved in supporting cultural work and a development programme in local surfing: he is on the board of Surfing Heritage South Africa, is a juror for the Wavescape Surf Film Festival, and is on the board of trustees for the Waves for Change surfing therapy and social development programme. Relating this involvement, he wrote an essay on the cultural significations of the surfboard as an art object titled “Ways of Seeing the Surfboard-As-Art”, Wavescape Art Board Catalogue 2012 (December 2012) and “Riding the waves of change“, an Op-Ed for the Cape Times newspaper (August 2013) on the first surf contest held at Monwabisi Beach, near Khayelitsha, Cape Town.

See his blog for more: writingsurfinghistories.org.za

“Reconfiguring the Historiography of ‘Kool’,” Durban, 2014. Photo: Ross Turner