Meet the Street Surfers Picking Up 90% of South Africa’s Recycling

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Big wave surfer Frank Solomon enjoys Cape Town’s clear swell every day. In Arthur Neumeier’s short film ‘Street Surfers’, he meets Johannesburg’s landlocked surfers who indirectly keep his ocean clean.

Words by Megan Brownrigg

“The taxi drivers try to hit them,” Frank laughs in despair. Street surfing is an adrenaline sport with no safe word, and certainly no adorning fans. But Thabo and Mokete surf Johannesburg’s concrete like it’s liquid.

The contours of a street and a wave surfer’s life bend very differently. The wave squad are part of a global popular culture which spans sport, free-loving Spotify playlists and salty hairstyles. They’re generally seen as enviable, free people. Street surfers wake up at 3am and earn $20 a day. They also pick up 90% of South Africa’s recycling, but live in society’s blindspot: pedestrians avoid their gaze and cars churlishly nudge them in the road.

To get paid at all, South Africa’s street surfers pick up a hectic amount of trash on the daily. These guys scratch tar at dawn, and can board up to 50km before dusk. Their rides are flatbed trollies (literally supermarket trolley wheels glued to something flat), which carry up to 100kg of recyclables at a time. Carving through thick city air, their ‘wetsuits’ are ragged balaclavas which protect their faces from the rays, dust and fumes. Safe to say: the street scene and wave scene don’t have much in common. But what connects these surfing cousins is the ocean.

Although most street surfers will never see the liquid animal, by collecting trash in cities inland, they indirectly protect big wave playgrounds. The bottles taken off of Johannesburg’s streets don’t end up in Cape Town’s waters, slowing the click-clack of single-use plastic life. Street Surfers is a film wanting to make these underground activists visible. The short stars big wave surfer and marine activist Frank Solomon, who cannot fathom why these custodians of our environment live below the poverty line and are treated as ghosts by the communities they clean. 

As someone who enjoys global acclaim in his discipline, he’s more than happy to shrug his limelight onto the people protecting Cape Town’s swell. “Just surfing by itself felt a bit selfish,” Frank tells me about getting involved in marine conservation awareness projects like this. “You’re basically just catching waves, trying to get Instagram photos and make sponsors happy”. I laugh but he’s not even vaguely joking. This guy calls a spade a spade, and openly admits he had no idea what street surfers were until he was invited to take part in the film. Frank was blindsided by what he discovered. “I had no idea places like that existed,” he says heavily of where the street surfers lived.

“They’re athletes, conservationists, and daily grafters for our climate.”

Thabo and Mokete are the street surfing duo we meet in this short film, which was created by Arthur Neumeier’s Eyeforce, a video production company which specialises in adventure sports. Hailing from Lesotho, a country landlocked by South Africa, Thabo and Mokete street surf to provide for their families back home. We meet them giggling like schoolboys as they share their nicknames ‘Maku’ and ‘Kwena’ with Frank, remaining cheekily cryptic about the translations of ‘Smoky’ and ‘Crocodile’. The pair make a sharp comedy act standing still, but on their boards they’re pure prodigies. 

As a man who has made a career out of his balance, Frank concedes their boards are “janky little things” (which does not translate to ‘safe and stable’). “Thabo and Mokete are pretty much athletes,” he says after a day out riding the city with them. Walk with me, kind readers, and remember that the wheels of these boards are designed to carry groceries across glossy floors, not men around the grit of Johannesburg. Humour me, and picture those contraptions carrying a grown man and up to twice his body weight in plastic and then let’s, for fun, drop that image into racing traffic on a day where everyone is pissed off… and we’ve got a street surfer’s day in the office.

Thabo and Mokete don’t own their own weighing scales, so at the end of the day they sell their crop of recyclables to the guy who does, who takes his cut before the final sale to the recycling companies. But first, there’s sorting to be done. In Devland, a settlement in Johannesburg’s Soweto, Thabo and Mokete carefully throw the brown PET, green PET and paper onto corresponding mounds. The recycling boys live amongst the waste they pick. A cosmos of plastic is what they come home to after collecting it all day. And although thousands of people live here, sanitation doesn’t exist, nor does sufficient nutrition for athletic work like street surfing. 

“I find it incredible that people who are doing something so good for the environment are living in abject poverty,” says Frank. This community’s only infrastructure is trash which isn’t theirs, but despite the living conditions, Devland’s sense of togetherness is world-class. “When I don’t have food in my house, I can get it in every house,” Mokete tells Frank as he invites him in for tea. In Frank’s eyes, no matter how great a people’s strength, they shouldn’t be forced to live in this kind of place. “I’m sure there’s a sense of happiness here but it’s not what we settle for as happiness, so why should they?”.

“I find it incredible that people who are doing something so good for the environment are living in abject poverty.”

Street surfing is by no means a choice. “If you’re not educated, you don’t want to join a gang and you don’t want to rob people, picking up other people’s trash is your only option.” Thabo and Mokete had originally been construction workers, but turned to street surfing when their employer failed to pay them multiple times. The stigma around collecting other people’s waste is why taxi drivers try to hit street surfers. “They are seen as the very bottom of society,” explains Frank. “They aren’t celebrated and they have an extremely hard life.” The idea that someone who chucks a bottle on the floor can judge the person who picks it up is a sideways standard, but one we’ve let cold-set into a social order. “And then I guess there’s the people below the street surfers, who can’t afford a board,” Frank muses, not wanting to guess at how they’re treated.

This short film hits notes of euphoria to acknowledge the work of street surfers, but a post-production experience re-rooted Frank in their reality. “I asked Thabo why Mokete hadn’t come to the premiere in Joburg,” Frank says, admitting he was wounded not to see him there. “Thabo told me that Mokete was upset, because they hadn’t been paid properly.” A generous daily rate had been allocated to the surfers for their time filming but, unbeknown to Frank or Arthur, the local ‘fixer’ (a person hired to connect them all) had taken two thirds of Thabo and Mokete’s cut. The Eyeforce crew were mortified that their cast had been exploited by a fellow local. But when the airing of such an injustice comes as late as the film’s premiere, it echoes how vulnerable street surfers are to the decency of others. “They’re so at the bottom of the barrel that they’re forced to trust people like that,” says Frank. 

Appalled by what had happened, Frank set up a ‘Backabuddy’ page to raise funds publicly for Thabo and Mokete. He wanted to lighten their reliance on others, which owning a set of weighing scales could do. True to his word, Frank has raised 40,000 rand to date for the street surfers. In February 2020, he travelled back to Johannesburg with the Eyeforce crew to find the boys, and tell them about the funds. A video on Frank’s Instagram reveals the moment they tracked Mokete down in the settlement. Frank still deposits funds from the ‘BackaBuddy’ page into Thabo and Mokete’s bank accounts on a monthly basis.

“It’s probably one of the most memorable projects I’ve ever worked on.”

It’s also worth mentioning that Street Surfers was originally shot with a different pair of surfing stars, but a bigger production crew had hindered filming. When Frank and Arthur returned to reshoot again as a tiny team, they couldn’t find their original street surfers. This kind of unresolved ending is about as representative of the street work as it gets: street surfing is dangerous and often nomadic, attracting vulnerable and undocumented people who can’t afford to be contactable by phone or email. But doing an intimate shoot with Thabo and Mokete hit a chord with filmmaker Arthur; “It’s probably one of the most memorable projects I’ve ever worked on. Going in without a script or any idea of who or where we were going to film was a rollercoaster. But we got these amazing characters and even while filming, I knew it was going to be something special.”

Arthur’s opulent shots and exalting music choices feel comfortable rather than excessive or cinematic. They accurately celebrate South Africa’s incredible street surfers. His camera lingers on them, notices them, and lifts them out of senseless hierarchy. But ever the realist, Frank thinks the people who really need to see the film, such as the taxi drivers on the roads, never will. He believes they’re too busy asserting their own survival, ramming into these guys as part of that fight. He’s not wrong, but for the first time since interviewing him, I slightly disagree with Frank. We all really need to see this film. These guys are picking up our trash, and their impact is measurable and undeniable. In 2017 South Africa recycled less than 10% of its plastic, which jumped to 46.3% in 2018 with the help of street surfers. Of the 519,370 tonnes of plastic waste collected in 2018, 352,000 tonnes was recycled into raw plastics and other products, breaking the 350,000 mark for the first time ever (averda.com). If street surfers collect up to 90% of the country’s plastics, why the hell don’t we know about them? These guys aren’t just people to acknowledge. They’re athletes, conservationists, and daily grafters for our climate. They’re people to admire.

The final moment of the film comes back to the connective tissue between the two breeds of surfer. Frank takes Thabo and Mokete to Cape Town to see the ocean they’re indirectly preserving. They see waves for the first time in their lives, and it’s a scene which, for its naked humanness, you need to watch instead of read about. But learning from Frank’s sage outlook, I’m all too aware that the scene is a poetic credit roll, and not where the story stops. So what does Thabo and Mokete’s real life look like now, nearly two years after shooting Street Surfers? Today, Frank still sends Thabo and Mokete their crowdfunded income, but he hasn’t heard from them in a while. “Lockdown must have been tough. Really tough,” he says, concerned. I ask what his hopes for the boys are. “I hope they’re just alive and doing their thing, and whatever happiness means for them.”

Frank knows hopes of survival aren’t enough for Thabo and Mokete. Which is why he wants us to start seeing street surfers. Once we make space for them in the road, they can raise the bar of what happiness means for them.

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Megan Brownrigg

Megan Brownrigg is a British writer. As a freelance journalist, Megan has worked as a BBC radio producer and her writing has appeared in The Telegraph. She loves talking to people in their various places in the world, and believes it’s the best way to sustainably travel. Her blog The Ink Tapes describes her encounters in short stories.

2021-09-30T03:02:57+00:00Categories: Conservation|