A million years ago, when I was still in my twenties, I volunteered at a Children’s Respite Home in Woodstock. A sort of respite volunteer for the respite workers. We’d take a group of children out for the day, sometimes to picnic in Tokai Forest, sometimes for a walk on the Green Point promenade and then one day to the beach. As someone who’s grown up on the coast I probably take my access to the ocean for granted. Of all the outings we did together the day at St James tidal pool stands out as creating the most joy for those children.
Something that Zandile Ndhlovu seems to know all too well. On any given weekend, Ndhlovu can be seen bringing groups of children from Langa to Windmill Beach to learn how to swim, watch penguins play, and discover the kelp forest.
A South African nine-to-fiver turned free diver, Ndhlovu says the ocean is the only place she’s felt a sense of belonging.
Yet the 33-year-old only discovered that feeling five years ago during an impulsive snorkel trip in Bali. “It was just the most incredible moment when I stopped panicking from thinking that I was drowning and just realizing the incredible world that was under there.”
Fear gave way to excitement and soon she owned the sea – getting certified in everything from scuba diving to free diving – but she took note of its lack of diversity.
“When I got into this ocean space, for two to three years, I was always the only Black person on the boat,” Ndhlovu says. “I had never seen another diver who looked like me.”
After she became South Africa’s first Black African free diving instructor, she says she felt a responsibility to make the ocean a more inclusive place.
Ndhlovu created The Black Mermaid Foundation, titled after her self-given nickname, with the intention of getting more people of color into the sea. “Where that name came from was just the realization that there were no Black mermaids exploring in the water the way that I was. And what followed was wanting to create representation around that.”
Through her foundation, Ndhlovu organizes ocean exploration programs for Black children across the country – many of whom have never seen the ocean.
“The foundation’s work is continuously taking kids out into the water and changing the stereotypes and the narratives that are attached to the ocean for us growing up,” she says. “I always believe we can only care about something once we’ve seen it, and when we talk about ocean advocates, it starts here. It starts by getting into the water.”