SA’s first black female freediving instructor on decolonising the oceans

Zandile Ndhlovu found 'freedom' under the sea, and is hoping to help others do the same through her work with the Black Mermaid Foundation

03 October 2021 - 00:02 By Sbu Mkwanazi
Zandile Ndhlovu says freediving allows her 'to explore unknown worlds in unknown ways'.
Zandile Ndhlovu says freediving allows her 'to explore unknown worlds in unknown ways'.
Image: Supplied

Ariel the Mermaid has red hair. The Starbucks mermaid's hair is green. Zandile Ndhlovu — SA's first black female freediving instructor — has blue hair. That's how much this mermaid loves all bodies of water, whether they be lakes, oceans or seas.

Bizarrely, Ndhlovu grew up in landlocked Soweto, where her interactions with water were limited to a bathtub, the shallow end of pool parties and buckets of water on Spring Day in townships.

She was drawn into the depths of the ocean in 2016, when she was on a snorkelling trip. Every time she duck-dived for a few seconds at a time, she was taken aback by what she witnessed. She enrolled for a scuba-diving course but soon realised it was not the same as freediving. She had become a water snob, in a good way.

"Freediving for me represents freedom. It is the ability to let go of the one thing we clutch on to so tightly: life," she says.

"In freediving, all you have as a safety net are your lungs. You go into the depths of the ocean with the one currency that you hold on to as a hook, and that's just one breath. You travel to depths and hope that you'll come back. Should anything on the way down or back up go wrong, you need to find it within you to stay calm, in order to take another breath of life."

Zandile Ndhlovu's personal record for freediving is 34m.
Zandile Ndhlovu's personal record for freediving is 34m.
Image: Samantha Hunter
'Freediving for me represents freedom,' says Zandile Ndhlovu.
'Freediving for me represents freedom,' says Zandile Ndhlovu.
Image: Danel Wentzel

Clearly, freediving is more than just the definition of diving in deep water without the use of breathing apparatus.

"Freediving is releasing this tight grip that we think we have on life. This allows me to explore unknown worlds in unknown ways. There's something so profound about taking that breath: your body wants to breathe, and you don't. It changes how you view life and you appreciate that the present is everything. You learn that when you are not present, you are not living," Ndhlovu says.

"We live in a world that's so future-focused, where we're grappling with the ambitions of the future — or where we're stuck in the past. The future doesn't matter and the past is what was. If we're actively living in the present, we're creating the future we want."


If ever there was a picture-perfect representation of a water nymph, it would be Ndhlovu. She is soft-spoken, a conservationist, and an anthropologist as well. Add to that a deep sense of community, as she is always aware how actions and decisions affect people.

"Diverse representation is important. When black people are growing up, society tells us that anything to do with water is only for white people. I've always fought that, saying that it's a matter of environment. How nonwhite people grow up, where we grow up and who we grow up with matters, and this can mean that water activities can be for nonwhites as well.

"The work that I do in the Black Mermaid Foundation is so critical. We work for diverse representation in the oceans. We need it in professional and recreational spaces. Water is not only for sustenance and subsistence, but joy as well.

"As a foundation, we assist ocean-facing communities with the access they need. This might be improving transportation, teaching them in their mother tongues or even just ensuring they are free in the vicinity of water," says Ndhlovu, who also works as a diversity and inclusion consultant.

And what about the rest of SA that's been banished to the inlands, only to see the coast on long weekends, school holidays and in December?

"The foundation has to do with any and all bodies of water," Ndhlovu says. "For those who don't live in coastal cities, they can still interact with deep water in quarries, for example. But for such freedom to happen, there needs to be healing around water.

"Black and brown South Africans have endured such pain around water, due to our country's history. I started the Black Mermaid Foundation to create a safe space for black and brown people to explore the waters. I realised the fears that we come from. I realised the stories we grew up with, and I wanted to create a space for exploration and expanding of normatives, so that it can be the standard for black and brown people to be in water as well."


At first, it might seem that what Ndhlovu is pushing for is an overdue correction of the past, where simple amenities like swimming pools were not afforded to black and brown communities. But when you unpack the importance of this, you realise it is so much more.

A young Zandile Ndhlovu.
A young Zandile Ndhlovu.
Image: Danel Wentzel

The annual number of black and brown people who drown is not as low as those of white South Africans, who grew up with public pools, pools in their homes and swimming lessons from an early age. In its most serious form, the work Ndhlovu is pursuing can mean the difference between life and death.

"Even when you look at the marine economy, it expands what black and brown people can be," she says. "Growing up, we were limited to just being cops, teachers, nurses and all the typical professions. When we speak about ocean conservation, we cannot expect people to care about things they've never seen, heard or experienced. To see beneath the surface of the ocean changes everything, and this is what all of us need to help to change. Water harbours so much life for all of us, and we should all care.

"We all need to create a connection with water so that we have diverse future generations who advocate for conservation. Ocean conservation has always positioned itself in an elitist way. It needs to belong to all of us, as we all have a responsibility for our waters. This is how we are going to conserve our oceans."


As SA slowly turns the tide when it comes to race relations, there is a phenomenon emerging, where black pioneers do not want to be referred to as the "first black" anything. According to some, this takes away from their achievements. How does Ndhlovu feel about being SA's first black female freediving instructor?

"It's not an individual achievement. It's a South African achievement. When you look at the water space in SA, based on the legacy of apartheid, where black and brown people were not allowed at certain beaches, it's important to redress. No matter how hard the doors were shut, we are now finding homes in places we never imagined," she says.

Zandile Ndhlovu in her element.
Zandile Ndhlovu in her element.
Image: Verity Fitzgerald

"There is room for 'first black titles' as they speak to access and dreams. But at the same time, 27 years into democracy, we still have a lot to do as we should not be where we're celebrating 'first black' anything. Race and gender aside, it is not easy to be the first in anything. This is usually an emotionally violent space, due to what's been normalised and allowed."

• For more information, visit the Black Mermaid Foundation's website or follow Ndhlovu on Instagram: @zandithemermaid


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