Any encyclopedia of South African surfing history would be incomplete without the inclusion of 1960s women’s Cape Town surf star and John Whitmore protégé, Margaret Smith.
Among the second generation of early South African surfers, ‘Margie’, as most knew her, was a teenage surfing sensation. She won several back to back provincial and interprovincial competition titles around the country through the middle of the decade, including the first ever official SA Women’s Championship title in Durban in July 1966, at just 17.
After the SA Champs, Margie was also selected by John Whitmore for the Springboks as number one seed in the women’s division, alongside East London surfer, Marlene Webb.
“14 years old and I was surfing verskrik. It was all I could think about.”Margaret ‘Margie’ Smith
The Green and Gold
Both women were the first two South African female surfers selected for the debut full South African surfing team, bound for California to attend the third International Surfing Federation (ISF) World Championships in San Diego in September of that year.
Margie’s rise as a competitive surfer was meteoric and in some ways echoed that of surfing’s rapid ascent as a recognised sport in South Africa in the 1960s.
Seen by many as a pastime for oddballs and layabouts, just weeks before they left for the US in September 1966, local contest surfers found out that they had became eligible to don the coveted green and gold blazer of the Springbok, alongside swimmers, rugby players, tennis players, cricketers and golfers.
This was an honour not available to all sports in South Africa at the time. In fact, it was a remarkable coup for such a young sport, which only had its first formal domestic competitions in 1964, and stands as a testament to John Whitmore’s powers of persuasion and contacts in the National Party government.
These included a personal friendship with the then minister of Sport and Recreation, the powerful English speaking politician Frank Waring, who John convinced to allow surfers to be awarded their national colours in late August of that year.
Before 1966, only three male surfers, all from Durban, had competed in the two previous ISF events: Max Wetteland in Australia in 1964 and again in Peru in 1965, along with George Thomopolous and Ant Van Den Heuvel.
Thanks to John, the trio were awarded their Springbok blazers retrospectively in 1966 and all surfers competing in the world contest from then on would receive their national colours.
“My best surfing days were walking these bloody heavy boards down from Long Beach to Kakapo. I loved Kakapo. Hell, I used to walk that distance.”Margie Smith
The timing could not have been better. Instead of extending just one invite in 1964 and three invites like they had in 1965, in recognition of South Africa’s growing respect in global surfing, for the first time the fledgling global surfing organisation invited a full team of eight Springbok surfers to attend the third ISF world contest.
This included, on the mens’ side, captain George Thomopolous as captain, and new caps Robbie McWade, Errol Hickman, Donald Paarman and Cornell Barnett, with John Whitmore as manager.
At a special gathering in Durban following the 1966 SA Champs, Margaret Smith and Marlene Webb were also awarded the distinction of being the first female surfers to represent their country as Springbok athletes.
Margie herself had only discovered surfing a few years earlier. The youngest in an avid sporting family, she was introduced to the sport at Muizenberg by her two older brothers in the summer of 1964 – and became hooked immediately. “14 years old and I was surfing verskrik,” she says now. “It was all I could think about.”
Margie started out on a cumbersome wooden board, then migrated to an old second hand board, before she received her first sleek sponsored custom made Whitmore surfboard.
A diminutive 5 foot 4 tall, and one of the few females to brave the waves anywhere in the country at the time, Margie endured a large measure of physical punishment – including face plants and battered limbs – to become one of South Africa’s most dominant competitive surfers within a few years.
Punch-above-her-wieght feisty, as a hardcore surf ‘stokey’, Margie tells how she trekked all around the Cape Peninsula to find waves, including a newly discovered break down Noordhoek Beach, at the wreck of the Kakapo.
“The Grendons had an old wooden shack in Scarborough, we used to go there surfing and stay over,” she recalled. “My best surfing days were walking these bloody heavy boards down from Long Beach to Kakapo. I loved Kakapo. Hell, I used to walk that distance.”
Both elated and humbled win SA Champs and be selected as a Springbok, Margie credits John Whitmore as having a massive influence on her surfing and life.
Recognising her talent, fearlessness in the surf and insatiable drive to win, John had coached Margie, gave her a part time job in his factory when she left school, sponsored her with surfboards and helped to raise the money she needed to pay for her air ticket to California.
“John was like a father to me,” says Margie, who will forever credit her manager and mentor with helping her to succeed as by far South Africa’s most successful female contest surfer of the mid-1960s.
Tough and talented, apart from a raft of local and club titles, Margie first won both the Eastern Province and Border surfing interprovincial surfing titles in 1965, before winning three consecutive South African womens surfing titles from 1966 to 1968, in Durban, East London and then Cape Town respectively.
It is a record feat that to this day remains matched only by Wendy Botha of East London (‘81-’83), who later went on to win four world titles.
Of course, Margie is not South African surfing’s first female champion – Jane Grendon takes that honour as the winner of the first ever interprovincial event at Long Beach in Cape Town in December 1964.
Nor was Margie alone – a cohort of graceful surfing girls had emerged in South Africa in the 1960s, including Jane Grendon, the Cooras sisters, Bernie Shelly, Nola Moller, Marlene Webb, Sally Sturrock, Philippa Hulett and Pippa Sturrock, among several others.
But Margie was certainly the most prolific, and arguably the most influential, of them all. And even though she was only in her late teens at the time, she made it her mission to attract more female surfers to the sport.
An active member of Western Province Surfing Association and Point Surf Club in Fish Hoek, at 16 Margie also formed South Africa’s first all-female surf club, The Seals – which, among other objectives, aimed for woman surfers to become independent and to not have to rely on male surfers for transport to the beach.
Margie also wrote a weekly surfing column in a Cape Town broadsheet and was featured regularly in newspaper articles about the sport. Her high profile and regular media appearances were absolutely responsible for many young girls taking up the sport in the city at the time.
Unfortunately, given her attractive features, this meant that Margie and the other female surfers were often exploited, their coverage more titillating and sexist than respectful. Unfortunately typical of the era, one of the more lewd bikini photo shoots in particular resuled in a negative backlash that disturbed her immensely.
“I didn’t like that very much. It made me feel very uncomfortable,” said Margie. “I had such dirty phone calls afterwards.”
But while in the sexist 60s society might have viewed woman surfers as mere beach bunnies, they mostly received nothing but encouragement and support from their male counterparts, none more so than the country’s chief champion of South African women’s surfing, John Whitmore.
While he may have recognised that women represented a massive market for his surfboards, John – who had been raised without a father by his mother and aunts, and had three daughters of his own and was arguably as much of a feminist as a man could be at the time – truly believed that women belonged in the water on equal footing to the men and was highly encouraging to them all.
Now the owner of a dog kennel business just outside Swellendam in South Africa’s Southern Cape region, Margie recalls her time with John fondly – including his enormous generosity. “Walter’s Grill reminds me of John,” she says. “He took us there after a day of surfing somewhere and paid for everything. I had a huge steak and ate the whole thing.”
San Diego Experience
To this day Margie counts her trip to San Diego as one of – if not the – highlight of her life.
Though the South Africans felt a little like country bumpkins among the far more sophisticated, well-travelled and worldly surfing fraternity, they enjoyed the experience immensely. “Everybody thought we lived amongs lions and elephants,” recalls Margie.
“In San Diego we stayed in a motel,” she says, “and there was TV there and there was no TV here, so I sat glued to all the shows. I couldn’t leave it alone. The team were also given lovely Cameros, brand new out of the box, to drive around in when we got there. Which was nice.”
While Margie did not achieve the results at ISF World Championships she may have aspired to, she nevertheless acquitted herself in small but contestable waves of Ocean Beach.
By posting a second place in her first heat and a third in the next, she managed to finish in the top ten women in the world, which for her will always be the highlight of her surfing career.
Along with John and the rest of the Springboks, Margie also walked away with a deed to one square metre of land on the North Shore, which was awarded to the South Africans for their exemplary behaviour as a team at the 1966 world contest.
Though Margie went on to win another two South African titles and competed in events around the country for the remainder of the decade, by 1970 the sport of surfing was mostly unrecognisable to the earlier 60s surfing generation.
Boards were now short and not long, and hair long and not short. The waves were also becoming increasingly crowded, heralding an exodus of the older crew from the sport, including Margie.
Though she still surfed occasionally for a few more years, Margie slowly drifted away from the beach. Enduring her fair share of challenges through her adult life, as we all do, she eventually ended up in the green foothills of the Langeberg, just outside landlocked Swellendam, where she now runs a dog kennel business with her partner.
Long separated from the waves by time and geography, Margie still talks so fondly of her time in the surf and – her scrapbooks filled with articles and clippings from her competitive heyday proudly laid out in front of her – is still clearly a surfer at heart.
But Margie is also much more than that.
She is unheralded the first lady of surfing in South Africa and deserves an honoured place in any record of the sport.
Margie Smith’s Top Surfing Accolades
- Springbok Colours – 1966 (placed in top 10 at third ISF World Contest in San Diego)
- Western Province Colours (1964-68)
- 1st, EPSA Championships, 1965
- 1st, Border Championships, East London, 1965 and 1966
- 1st, SA Championships, Durban, 1966
- 1st, SA Championships, East London, 1967
- 1st, SA Championships, Cape Town, 1968
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