As a young white South African girl, I recall the poster of Cass Collier hanging above my bed. I never realized at that time that this man was breaking down walls of inequality and pioneering the way for the coloured surfing community. Looking at Cass today, one might doubt the strength and dedication of the dreadlocked Rastafarian, but he convinced me of the opposite within our first minute of conversation.
There are very few times in a person’s life that you’ll meet a man that makes you view the world in a different light. A person that makes you look deep within yourself and re-evaluate your outlook on life, your contribution to society and where you fit into the playground we call earth. I experienced this rare delight whilst sitting down with previous big wave surfing champion, Cass Collier, and here follows his tale….
Q: What was your introduction to surfing?
A: I grew up in Grassy Park and was in the water since I can remember. My dad was surfing at that time and took us to the beach with him. It wasn’t easy for black people to surf at that time; we were limited to certain beaches. We weren’t allowed to surf Muizenberg beach in those days, but today it’s my office window. I aim to move my family to Muizenberg soon to reclaim my rightful place near these waters.
Q: How did you experience surfing as a child?
A: When I was young the teachers used to ask me what I want to be when I grow up and I used to say a professional surfer. This had everyone in stitches; okes were rolling on the floor laughing. Surfing was such an overwhelming thing for me as a child. It stems from Africa and Polynesia and it was regarded as an elite activity. I still have the same view on surfing, it’s such a beautiful thing to partake in, it’s a gift from the ocean.
Q: Highlights in your life?
A: I am a happily married father of four which I regard as my biggest achievement. Looking at my surfing career, I view my 1999 big wave world championship title as the biggest highlight. I’m also a multiple Western Province championship winner and continue to contribute to the team these days by coaching.
Q: Tell me more about your community outreach program?
A: I am a link to surfing for the underprivileged kids here in the Muizenberg area. I also give surfing lessons to fund the equipment for the surf foundation. Our aim is to build up the foundation and get more kids involved. Surfing is such an expensive sport these days and very few boys from the coloured community here can afford the equipment. I am solely relying on my own income to sponsor this project but will look at approaching other organizations for funding in the future. I am not rushing into things; I understand this is a timely process. It’s great that the government is starting to strongly back the community driven projects. My parents have just joined me in the Cass Collier surf foundation and will help build the organization up and get more kids into the water.
Q: What plans do you have for the future?
A: I taught for the last ten years and I will keep teaching until I can’t surf anymore. That’s our responsibility as surfers and to the community. I want to not give kids everything for free, I teach them to grow. I teach the kids to clean the beach and give back to the ocean as well as fitness and an understanding of the ocean. Surfers need to remember that they shouldn’t just take from the beauty without giving back. Surfers these days are selfish, forgetting to look after the source.
Q: Are you still competing?
There is not enough excitement or value in competing in South Africa to encourage people to pursue surfing as a career. I accomplished enough and didn’t compete for money, I did it for myself and now I enjoy teaching and giving this gift back to the community.
Q: Do you have a favorite board?
A: I surf anything. Surfing is like art. An artist can take any brush and paint. People mustn’t get hooked on equipment and should try and buy local whenever possible. We are starting our own surfboard brand, Cass Collier model, shaped by Ian Armstrong. We’re hoping to have this available via our Facebook page in the coming months.
Q: How difficult was it to break into the surfing circuit being a coloured kid?
A: We experienced a lot of localism from the white community but one cannot change history and everything happened for a reason. It’s all about creating balance. It’s time for reconciliation, it’s about emotional healing. The level of surfing is rising and there is a lot of talent in the young coloured community that I teach. These kids just need the opportunity to compete and push for total transformation within the professional surfing circuit. South African surfing feels a bit disjointed and there is a great need for a more social aspect to surfing. We are starting more informal surfing competitions to inspire these kids to go pro.
Q: Tell me more about the Cass Collier Surf Academy?
The program is based around health and is offered to the underprivileged community at no charge. The kids are not just coming for a good time or hand-outs; they are here to build themselves. I give them a training session as well as surf training. We try and instill a responsibility towards the ocean and environment. It’s a great responsibility for me but this is my duty as a surfer, to give back to the ocean and the community.
I was truly humbled by Cass’s approach to life and the ocean. His efforts and contribution to the surfing community ranks as legendary.
Cass Collier is Pioneer, Father, Son, Soul Surfer, Hero, Champion Surfer, Humility, Honesty and Love. There can be no imitation – this man is the real deal.
Note: The documentary ‘Taking Back the Waves’ chronicles the story of Cass and his family; and at the same time the parallel history of black surfer struggle in South Africa. Cass’s father, Ahmed, was a pioneer surfer who fought racial restrictions to take his family to the beach and teach his children to surf. Young Cass became a strong competitor and due to his father’s encouragement and support as assisted to go on the world professional surfing tour.