1960s Surfing Prohibition: The Muizenberg Banning Saga

“It appears that the council has bulldozed its way into promulgating these regulations which prevent surfers from using areas not used by bathers since Van Riebeeck landed.” – John Thornton Whitmore.

Muizenberg is the undisputed spiritual home wave riding in South Africa and is celebrating its 100 year anniversary as a surf spot this year. Given the hordes of wave riders of every creed, age and discipline that flock to its tepid waters almost every day, it is hard to believe that during the mid 1960s the Cape Town authorities completely prohibited surfing at Surfer’s Corner, as well as several other beaches around the Cape Peninsula.

A Pariah Sport

The bannings followed a series of collisions between stray surfboards and swimmers. In early 1964, two incidents in particular had exacerbated the perceived problem. A swimmer was struck in the face by a stray vessel at Sunrise beach past Muizenberg and required stitches, and another swimmer was hit by a surf craft at Clifton on the Atlantic side and hospitalised overnight. Certain members of the community and public officials howled with outrage in newspaper stories, which were highly critical of what they believed were reckless and irresponsible surfers.

Many aggrieved swimmers in these contested spaces, such as Surfer’s Corner and the beaches of Clifton, complained bitterly about the obvious danger that surfing seemed to be increasingly presenting. A number of negative articles then appeared in Cape Town’s leading daily newspapers, damning the sport of surfing to tarnation and branding surfers as an out of control “nuisance” and a severe threat to public safety. A few even advocated an outright prohibition of this “dangerous” new sport across the peninsula permanently.

With a widespread belief that it would only be a matter of time before a someone wading in the shallows of a Cape beach would die from being hit by a surfboard, surfing was then banned outright for several months of the year on both coasts. This included prohibitions on some of most the popular Cape beaches in the summer.

Surfers would only be permitted to paddle out year round – according to one newspaper report – at Strandfontien further down False Bay’s shore and on the Atlantic side at Balie Bay, Glen Beach, Moses Beach in Clifton and certain parts of Sea Point. During the summer months surfing was also banned near Milnerton, at the popular beach breaks ‘El Stumpo’ and ‘Tanks’. Everywhere else was ostensibly off limits. But most significantly, in the southern hemisphere summer of 1964 into 1965, it included a total ban on surfing in Muizenberg from The Corner to past the old pavilion.

Whitmore and the WPSA

Though fast catching on in popularity, surfing was still in its infancy at the time with only a few hundred participants countrywide. Unfortunately the sport’s growth potential had now been made vunerable by the growing and widespread view – fostered by regular sensational newspaper coverage – that it was a public hazard. Many influential people in the council and other institutions supported these bans and some even pushed to extend them. Indeed, so significant a threat was this development to surfing that the situation was fundamental factor in the formation of the Western Province Surfing Association (WPSA), founded by John Whitmore and his loyal supporters in late 1964.

The primary motivation of the WPSA was of course to promote organised surfing competitions. Held at Long Beach in December of that year, the first Western Province/South African Championships set the standard for every provincial and national surfing competition to follow in the country [read more about the contest here]. Through extensive media coverage, the event would boost the positive profile of surfing and its acceptance as a legitimate competitive sport considerably from then on.

But the WPSA was also formed because surfing was increasingly being perceived as a menace. From its inception, the organisation positioned itself as the official voice of the sport, mainly to speak out against the bans. Under the leadership of John Whitmore as chairman, he and key committee members would play an important role in negotiating with the authorities to fight those behind the surfing prohibitions as best they could.

“The main aims of the association are to promote and control surfing in the area designated and assist surf lifesaving in whatever manner wherever possible, thus creating a good name for the sport,” John wrote in SA Surfer in early 1965. “One of the many benefits of such an association,” the inaugural WPSA minutes also stated, “would be that surfers could have a spokesman to represent them when dealings with the council or official bodies may occur.”

Certainly, anyone with an economic interest in surfing would have had to be concerned by the bannings, least of all its leading surfboard manufacturer, John Whitmore. But now WPSA were able to step in to play a positive role and represent not just the surfers, but anyone with a vested stake in the sport’s future growth.

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Mourning The Corner

Though during the 1960s surfing was already being performed at many Cape beaches, on a good weekend by far the most flocked to the user-friendly waves and warm water of Muizenberg, with the infamous Surfers Corner as the main gathering place. But soon some aggrieved residents believed swimming at Muizenberg had now become hazardous due to their leashless, big, heavy boards washing shoreward towards the bathers after a wipeout, and had reported the situation to the authorities. There was also a fear that the presence of surfers would become a deterent to tourists, and the sport was duly banned.

Lead by John Whitmore, the surfers pushed back and the resultant embroglio persisted for the next few years. From newspaper reports published before WPSA was formed, as the sport’s most high profile representative, it seems John had been forced by these circumstances to become surfing’s unofficial spokesman in Cape Town. Whitmore is often quoted discussing the surfing ban in several articles and credited with being the chairman of WPSA prior to August 1964, even though the organisation did not yet formally exist.

Clearly, he felt that the sport required official legitimacy and a mouthpiece, which was now at least finally firmly set in place with the organisation’s constitution. Over the subsequent few years the saga played out regularly in local newspaper columns. John, and shortly afterwards, False bay residents Frank Solomon (soon voted in as WPSA’s ex-officio president) and his son Robin (a future committee member) became the sport’s chief voices in the media.

Whitmore and the Solomons vociferously defended surfing ad nauseum and several times attempted to negotiate with sometimes hostile public representatives at community meetings, which often proved to be a trying experience. The Muizenberg ratepayers association then petitioned the authorities to enforce a municipal by-law under the Seashore Act to prevent surfing in The Corner and indeed the entire Muizenberg beach, a stretch of several kilometres, through the entire summer from September to April.

“We all used to surf there and somebody went and complained to the council,” said John Pagdon, an early Muizenberg regular, who was also present at the inaugural WPSA meeting. “They said the surfers are going to kill us here. So the council said no more surfing right up to the eastern end of Sunrise Beach.”

Besides public safety, the growing enmity towards the surfers at Muizenberg was also economically motivated, elaborated another of the infamous ’60s Corner locals, Nicky Hough. Local business owners feared that the possibility of getting bashed by an errant surfboard would put visitors off the bustling holiday town. “It was a very popular seaside resort,” Nicky said, “and people came down in their droves. And the livelihood of the town relied on that Christmas six weeks to fund themselves for the rest of the year.

“When there were a couple of guys surfing, there could be two or three boards on different waves,” continued Nicky. “And you know, most of us were fit, strong guys, we were lifesavers and could bodysurf but we could never get to the board in time. So this caused complaints, and eventually those complaints went to the council and the council decided in their wisdom they were just going to arbitrarily ban surfing over that time period.”

The swimmer injured in the False Bay incident had also threatened in newspaper reports to sue the responsible surfer. Despite the positive coverage generated by the Jantzen swimming events (a popular swimming race from Fish Hoek to Muizenberg that ran from 1963 to 1965 in which a surfer followed each swimmer) and its endorsement by the False Bay Publicity Association, more and more council members continued to lobby against the sport, with the objective to bar surfers from their beaches for as long as they could.

In one newspaper article, the comments of a Mr. M. Barnett, Chairman of the Ward XVII Ratepayer’s Association, which covered the Muizenberg area, summed up the anti-surfing sentiment. “Surfers are making a nuisance of themselves and seem to think they own the ocean,” Barnett said. “Bathers cannot relax when they go into the sea for fear of being hit by a surfboard. Until such time as it is adequately and efficiently controlled, the ratepayers of Muizenberg feel that surfing should be totally banned during the summer months.”

As a compromise, the ratepayers association then proposed to create a designated surfing area further down Muizenberg beach. John Whitmore pushed back, citing the fact that Muizenberg Corner was the best place for surfing in the area and that the new zone outlined for them was unsuitable due to the inferior surfing conditions and because it was so far from the train station. “The waves do not break correctly,” John said in a newspaper article, “and it is a great distance for the young surfers… to carry their boards.”

As a further compromise, John and the WPSA proposed that the area – known by non-surfers as ‘Rocky Corner’ – be designated as a surfing area all year round. “60 percent of the area is rock bound and therefore of little use to swimmers,” countered John. “We would only need about 60 yards of the beach, stretching from the rocks towards the pavilion, for launching purposes.”

Nevertheless, in 1965, following a meeting of concerned stakeholders, including the ratepayers, the False Bay Publicity Association and WPSA, it was agreed that surfing would yet again be prohibited at Muizenberg Corner from October 1 to March 31, but allowed there during the winter, and that signs be erected to enforce the decree. In an apparent concession, as representatives of the surfers, John Whitmore and Frank Solomon had reluctantly agreed to this decision, lest those pushing for an outright year-long ban win the day.

The Push Back

Naturally, many surfers completely ignored the summer surfing ban. The situation was then made worse when another man was hit, allegedly again by a stray surfboard. That summer there were also often heated words between transgressing surfers and irate swimmers at Muizenberg and Clifton, creating further bad publicity for the sport. This put further pressure on John and the WPSA, who were seen as being unable to reign in the surfers.

In response, the association countered that the errant surfers were not members of WPSA and it had no control over non-members who disregarded the surfing ban. Of course, many were in fact members and many of the officials and the public did not and could not differentiate between them anyway.

“Our association wishes to make sure we act in a responsible manner at all times,” John told another newspaper, but also reinforced their wish to rescind the ban altogether. He cited agreements between surfers and officials in Australia and Durban, where similar scenarios had played out, and the willingness of WPSA to help create a more balanced arrangement at Muizenberg. “We would like to start a similar system of control, but have never been approached by the authorities,” he continued. “Co-operation must come from both sides, we will keep clear from the bathing areas and use our portion of the beach and bathers in turn must stay away from the surfing zones.”

Frustrated by the opaque by-laws laws governing the surfing restrictions, which meant that so far no transgressing surfer had been prosecuted for continually flaunting them, city officials began pressing for harsher penalties to be enforced. The controversy rolled on, and at the peak of the saga there was a further call for an outright ban on surfing, which the authorities still considered a highly dangerous sport to swimmers, at least during the holiday periods, throughout the city of Cape Town.

In the summer of 1965, the City Council also made the decision to continue the surfing ban at Muizenberg Corner the next year, the dates now changed from November 1 to April 30, and to increase patrols of beach wardens to enforce it more vigorously, but these attempts seem to be short lived and they had little or no success in preventing surfers from entering the water. Often they would run away from or avoid the beach patrols or provide them with fake names – Miki Dora a popular pseudonym – to avoid fines when confronted.

Outright Rebellion

Continuing to be covered in hyped up newspaper articles, the controversy reached a crescendo in early November 1966, when several Muizenberg surfers staged a public protest at Surfer’s Corner. By then, under the umbrella of WPSA, the Muizenberg Corner Surf Club (MCSC) had been formed, in part to further represent the surfers who frequented the beach and fight for their right to surf it.

“Our line was always that they should give us something like 400 yards in the corner, because that was absolute tradition, sacrosanct as it were,” said John Pagdon, then MCSC president. “People could walk down to the pavilion and it wouldn’t trouble them and that would go right down to Sunrise… or down to Nine Miles or any of the places there.

“We just wanted that little area in the corner, because that is where we always surfed.  I tell you what you could go down there on a Saturday or a Sunday and as long it was offshore… you would get 100 people, all surfers, standing on the side, drinking coffee and chatting”

“We had a couple of meetings about it,” said Pagdon. “We said no, this is bullshit. So we decided to do a test.” As law graduate and articles clerk he was well-versed in the legalities and volunteered to paddle out at the Corner on the first weekend of November in a blatant flaunting of the ban, which they believed was in fact not enforceable by any actual legislation. “I went for a surf, and when I came back, there was a big crowd around and all the Muizenberg Corner kids and everybody and there was a police van. And as I came out, the policeman, the constable, came down to me and said, ‘I am arresting you for surfing’.”

The policeman in question then threatened to confiscate Pagdon’s surfboard as evidence. “So I said, ‘I am coming with you buddy’,” he recalled, “and he loaded me and the board into the back of the van and off we went to the Muizenberg police station, and filled in a charge sheet.”

Fortunately, Pagdon was released the same day. A month later he appeared, with his surfboard and supported by a crowd of several Muizenberg Corner Surf Club members and hangers on, in the Simonstown court to defend his case alongside an experienced barrister from his firm. Armed with a surfboard as Exhibit A, they argued that there was in fact no explanation of what a surfboard was in the applicable by-laws and therefore there was no legal ground upon which to enforce any form of surfing ban at Muizenberg, or anywhere else in Cape Town for that matter.

“He said, there is no definition of a surfboard… it could have been a surfboard or a surf ski, there is a no definition,” recalled Pagdon. “He said it is unclear legislation and the magistrate agreed and then threw the case out. So that is the story behind that.”

Nevertheless the ban continued. The Muizenberg surfers then staged a well-publicised public protest, believed to be one of the first such actions in South Africa. Considering the paranoia of the time under the yoke of the apartheid government, who understandably frowned on such activities, it was attended by several hundred people, including local MP John Wiley. Tensions between the protestors and the authorities ran high, but the MP eventually persuaded the surfers – who had clearly made their point – to disperse after some harsh words with the police.

Fuss and Bother

Soon afterwards, John Whitmore, referred to now as president of both WPSA and the South African Surfrider’s Association (SASA) in a newspaper article, commented again on the frustration after the Pagdon arrest and protest incident. “We, as a responsible sporting body, have attempted to obtain audience on three separate occasions with the Amenities Committee of the City Council,” he said.

“Representing at least half the surfers in the Western Province, we felt we could help constructively in formulating regulations to provide safety for bathers and surfers alike. It appears however that the council has bulldozed its way into promulgating these regulations which prevent surfers from using areas not used by bathers since Van Riebeeck landed. If these areas were made available to surfers congestion would obviously be removed from areas used by bathers.”

Nevertheless, from subsequent newspaper articles, some council members and other parties continued to try to push the case for the surfing ban, but clearly momentum had been lost for the anti-surfing brigade that summer. Their cause was further thwarted when it emerged that most accidents involving stray watercraft injuring swimmers previously thought to be surfboards – including those at Sunrise Beach and Clifton a few years earlier –  were determined to be lifesaver skis not surfboards.

After sitting on the fence for the duration, local Simonstown MP John Wiley had come out in support of the surfers, and even the regional ratepayers eventually changed their opinion, including one of the sports earliest detractors, the False Bay Ratepayers association spokesman. “Mr. M. Barnett (chairman),” reported a newspaper article, “said he was a great admirer of this sport and that as far as the ratepayers association was concerned they would do everything in their power to make provision for it.”

By then air-conditioning was widely available and while previously the muggy summer heat of Durban, which had proven to be a deterrent to Johannesburg holiday makers, they now flocked there at the expense of Muizenberg. Now no longer the go to SA summertime holiday destination, into the late 1960s, the False Bay town began a rapid decline in fortunes, with businesses closing and buildings falling into disrepair.

Ironically, surfers were now seen to bring much wanted economic activity and were now being welcomed by local business owners, especially those on or near the beach. “Muizenberg should be given a shot in the arm, which is what surfing appears to be giving it,” said Frank Solomon in one of the last newspaper articles covering the story. “It is in everyone’s interests, including the city council’s, to have Muizenberg resurrected from its standing as a second-class or third-class holiday resort to which it has deteriorated.”

Thus, from early 1967 onwards, surfers returned to Muizenberg Corner during the summer months – without any threat of persecution or arrest. From that point onwards, the whole issue washed away like a footprint on the beige sand beaches of False Bay. “From then on we all surfed there and nobody said anything about it,” said John Pagdon.

Though never directly involved on the ground in the fight against the Cape surfing prohibitions of the 1960s, John Whitmore nevertheless spent a lot of time and energy in helping to rescind the bans against surfers and was clearly more than happy to be rid of them.“The hassle going on between the surfers and the bathers at The Corner,” he summed it up, “was all more fuss and bother than was necessary.”

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2 thoughts on “1960s Surfing Prohibition: The Muizenberg Banning Saga

  1. I read your bio on John Whitmore with interest as I had met him on several occasions. I also remember the protest action at Surfers Corner well and in particular the heated meeting there which I attended with my father, John Wiley. Both John Whitmore and John Pagden came to our house in St James several times to keep him informed. I am, however, horrified by the reference in this bio to Bird Island- as though it has some bearing on my fathers full support for the surfing community . For the record, the book on Bird Island has been withdrawn in all forms as it has been proven to be fiction. The publishers have also paid the biggest defamation settlement in South Africa’s history.

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    1. HI Mark, my apologies for the oversight. That blog was actually written quite a while back, before the settlement I believe. I agree it was not necessary or relevant and have removed it. Sorry for any hurt or inconvenience caused. Best regards, Miles

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