With the Ballito Pro on our doorstep once again, we sat down with KwaDukuza head lifeguard, international surfing judge and vice president of surfing South Africa, Bongani Xulu.
Young, ambitious and determined to make a difference in the sporting world, Bongani is exactly the kind of person South Africa needs.
A true product of transformation, his success hasn’t come easy. The grandson of a Salt Rock domestic worker, 33-year-old Bongani lost his leg in a car accident when he was 17 years old.
His story is nothing short of extraordinary, having made his way up the surfing ranks in the country as a one-legged surfer, head lifeguard in charge of five beaches, international surfing judge and now vice president of the country’s official surfing governing body.
Bongani grew up in Salt Rock surrounded by mostly white kids and says he was lucky enough to have been exposed to the ocean from a young age.
“All of my friends were body boarding and surfing, so I was introduced to the sport when I was really young. By the age of 15, I was one of the youngest lifesavers in the region and probably one of the first African lifesavers in the country.”
But Bongani suffered a major setback when he was involved in a car accident a few years later, which cost him his left leg. It was a massive blow and he says it took him around 10 months to fully recover.
“When you go through something like that, most of the rehabilitation needs to take place in your mind. I was incredibly lucky to have an amazing support base around me and they helped me get my life back,” he says, humbly.
Some of his closest friends at the time were members of the Salt Rock Smith family. Father Mike was the chairman of KZN surfing and his daughter Tammy Lee a competitive surfer. The family also owned a surf camp called The Secret Spot.
“I started working at the surf camp and eventually ran and managed it for them. I was close friends with Tammy and travelled the country supporting her at surfing competitions.” It was during this time, Bongani says, that Mike introduced him to judging and encouraged him to give it a try.
I had a good understanding of the sport and a good eye, and Mike suggested this may be a way to still have a career in the sport that I love. I fell in love with judging straight away. My favourite thing about it was (and still is) being able to travel the world. I absolutely love traveling.”
Not long after embarking on his career as a judge, Bongani found himself judging the SA champs in Victoria Bay. He moved up the ranks incredibly quickly, something he attributes to the fact that he is a perfectionist and always sets out to do things to the best of his ability. And his ambitious nature has served him well.
Bongani was elected as a member of the Surfing SA board of directors in 2016 and was made vice president last year. “It was a huge achievement, but it’s not just a title to me. I see this as an opportunity and responsibility to execute all the changes I want to see in the sport. Transformation is vital to ensure we are on the right track and it has to start from the top. It’s not just about getting disadvantaged surfers to stand up on a surfboard and hold up the ‘shaka’ sign . . . we need to really mentor them and guide them up the ranks in the surfing world.”
Bongani still judges internationally while working hand-in- hand with Surfing SA president Johnny Baker to ensure the smooth running of the sport in the country in terms of provincial and district structures.
He also has a demanding, high responsibility day job as the lifeguard superintendent for KwaDukuza, overseeing five North Coast beaches, namely Tinley Manor, Salt Rock, Thompsons Bay, Willard Beach and Clark Bay. His job sees him supervising 15 lifeguards out of season and up to 50 in peak season. “Council has been very supportive of my role as a judge and duties within Surfing SA. I’m very proud of the fact that we have had zero drownings at bathing beaches in operational times since I took over.”
When he’s not working hard, and when the surf is good, Bongani still enjoys jumping on his Malibu board and taking advantage of our beautiful North Coast waves.
“I really believe my disability enhanced my life rather than taking away from it. You can never say what would’ve happened, but I doubt I would’ve found this path and achieved what I have today if I hadn’t been disabled.”
The most important lesson the ocean has taught him, Bongani says, is humility. “The ocean always reminds you who is boss. My advice to young surfers is to be respectful and appreciative of what you have. Respect and manners can take you long way – and it’s not about where you came from, it’s about where you are going.”
Text: Leah Shone | Photograph: Chris Allan, Chris Allan Photo | Styled by: Ty Gormley, I’m Stylin’