Young Men in Coastal Towns: From Despair to Hope

Anthropologist Kay Milton (1996) once said, "anthropologists are in the habit of storing up their favourite anecdotes from fieldwork for appropriate occasions." Though we do not qualify to be addressed as anthropologists, we have encountered people from different groups and classes during the fieldwork we have been engaged in. During these encounters, we have observed and collected stories worth telling. This piece addresses our encounters with young men in the coastal communities where we have been conducting fieldwork.

Through our fieldwork, we have observed the dominant and the non-dominant pictures, that form our consciousness of coastal spaces. The most dominant image of coastal spaces in South Africa, as depicted in the media, is that of surfing, the festive seasons, and the pleasures of swimming, sunbathing, having beachfront properties, and so forth.

The non-dominant image that we have come across in coastal spaces is that of young black and coloured men who wake up every morning to go fishing, stand in queues looking for employment, and do other forms of “ukuphanda” (hustling).

In Port St Johns, 2nd Beach, we had a conversation with a young man who is involved in sand sculpturing who told us that he learnt about sand sculpturing in Durban, and then he decided to come back home to the Mpondoland:

“I learnt this art in KZN, when I came back to Lusikisiki, I heard that there was no work of this nature in Port St Johns, then I came here to do this art, and people received it very well. I am doing this art my brother so that I can make some cents and be able to sleep having eaten.”

In the face of unemployment, some young men, like Mzi, found something to keep them occupied. Additionally, at a small village in Hamburg, we met several interesting people eager to share their experiences. One of these people was Siya who shared, "When I came here, I knew no one, but now I have a family. I was unemployed for a long time until I came to Hamburg and worked for the Keiskamma. We do artwork like tapestries, which are inspired by the natural settings around us”. These artworks are showcased in art centres and exhibitions in and out of South Africa. “I love what I do. I love art a lot. I don't want to lie because it took me to many places, I never imagined I would ever be.”

Adjacent to the Eastern Cape along the Western Cape edge, the ocean brings a different experience and value to the coastal towns in the Western Cape. Affluent communities seek different hopes from the sea. Through conversations we had with several participants, one that stood out was that of a gentleman who had found his purpose in life, when life proved otherwise. When asked the question, ‘What does the sea mean to you?’ the gentleman replied, "Yo, bru, you do not understand. You are a completely different person when you are on the surfboard." The spiritual element of the ocean embodies a sense of connectivity with wholeness, a feeling that cannot be explained but expressed. Some surfers express that they live on the board, that they are one with the board. This depicts the aspirations to achieve what they craft well.

As we can see from these few stories, diverse young men from different groups and classes have created different meanings for themselves in the coastal communities and have something to look forward to in everyday life, like fishing, surfing, and artwork connected to coastal life.


Milton, K. (1996). Environmentalism and Cultural Theory: Exploring the Role of Anthropology in Environmental Discourse (1st ed.). London: Routledge.

Posted on 14 March 2024 08:55:21

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