Mini Cho and the Renaissance of African Surf Culture
Surfing, in its most basic form, is a surface water sport in which the participant uses a board to ride along a moving wave towards the shore. In theory, this most basic action will have occurred for as long as there have been coastal populations ready to venture out for fishing and exploration. Yet, the development of professional surfing, which had initially been adopted by Australia and the US in the 1970s, and its documentation through surfing photography, has created a surfing culture that has been predominantly framed from a Western perspective.
The origins of surfing are commonly associated with Polynesian and Hawaiian culture, but historians like University of California history professor, Kevin Dawson, have collated documented evidence of the independent history of African wave-riding from as early as the 1640s. In his book, “Undercurrents of Power: Aquatic Culture in the African Diaspora,” Dawson explores how populations across the coastlines of Africa had developed sea-dwelling merchants who learned to navigate surf patterns, as a means to open up economic opportunities.
While competitive surfing may be relatively new for much of coastal Africa, the existence of wave-riding has always been embedded within the rich diversity of African cultures. The recently released book by surf brand Mami Wata, explores this renaissance of African surf culture, and the communities that have cultivated it. Co-founder, Selema Masekela, extreme sports commentator and son of South African jazz icon, Hugh Masekela, says, “As a kid all the way through working in the surf apparel industry, I never saw any brands showcasing surfing from the perspective of anyone that looked like me.”
Afrosurf aims to highlight the often overlooked and under-represented local personalities and communities within Africa who have developed their own unique cultures of wave-riding on the continent. Like, Sung Min Cho, known locally as Mini Cho, Mozambique’s first-ever professional surfer.
“When I started surfing, there weren’t many people of color in the lineup,” Cho tells OkayAfrica. “I found out that there had never been a professional Mozambican surfer before. So it became my goal to become the first.” This was no easy feat. Once a surfer has reached the level it takes to enter into the World Surfing League (WSL) Qualifying Series, they then have to fund the cost of extensive international travel to compete and earn enough points to join the elite global tour. “It was a struggle because it took me so long to get any sponsors. It felt very demoralizing,” says Cho.
Mini Cho beat all of the local contestants in the 2021 Croyde Surf Club open competition. Photo: Nuno Marcelino
But Mini didn’t give up. At 20 years old, Mini’s achievements include becoming the first surfer from Mozambique to have earned international sponsorships from brands including Smile Wave Fund, O’Neill South Africa and DryRobe, and the first to enter the WSL Men’s Qualifying Series professional surf competition – achieving QS status. He first entered in 2019 and ranked 41st in both the Vans Surf Pro Classic and the Volkswagen SA Open of Surfing. He will also be entering the QS 5000 Ballito Pro presented by O’Neil in South Africa this December. “I want to be the most decorated surfer in the country,” adds Cho. “To set the bar high so that kids have something to work towards.”
Born the second eldest of three, to a Mozambican mother and a Korean father in South Africa, Cho was often referred to as “the Korean kid.” But, Korea didn’t recognize his parents’ marriage so he found himself caught between a duality of identities. “Besides my brothers, I’d never met anyone who looked like me,” says Cho. Due to the rise of xenophobic attacks towards Mozambicans in South Africa, Mini, his parents and two brothers moved to Mozambique when he was twelve.
At fourteen, he began surfing at Tofo beach, which is one of the last stops on the Southern African continental backpacker trail. “I remember a tourist first loaned me and my brothers a 5’8 neon yellow board,” says Cho. “I immediately became addicted.”
Mozambique’s long coastline leads to the Indian Ocean, which has year-round warm water and receives hefty swells towards the south, attracting an increasing amount of surf tourism due to some world-class right-hander barrels. It’s also known for its world-class diving with a diverse marine ecosystem, including manta rays and whale sharks.
“My passion for surfing is very driven by the next generation,” says Cho, who is also the Director of the Mozambican division of the Surfers Not Street Children charity, providing surf therapy and mentorship to vulnerable children. Known locally as Tofo Surf Club, the diversion program aims to help at-risk youths learn how to surf, and receive the support they need to stay in school rather than fall into the negative side of tourism, including joining gangs and the use and trafficking of illegal drugs.
Mini Cho wants to build a surfing team that represents Mozambique at the Olympics.Photo: Mini Cho
“I’m most proud of the kids’ progression, not only in surfing but also in their lives. Now they have clarity on what they want to do. Now we have a lot of kids who stay in school for longer, who are getting good at surfing and are getting jobs in diving and lifeguarding. There are fewer kids on the streets being dragged into crime. There are more kids with vision, goals and discipline who want to live a healthy life.”
Cho recently visited Surfers Not Street Children founder, Tom Hewitt at his home in North Devon on business and to test his surfing prowess in cold water. “I thought wearing neoprene would be restricting in the water, but I made it work,” says Cho. The extra layer hadn’t affected the fluidity of his surfing, as he had just beaten all of the local contestants in the Croyde Surf Club open competition the day prior.
When asked about his goal for the future, Cho has his aim set sky-high. “Surfing culture isn’t big in Mozambique yet. So my next goal is to set up a national surfing federation, and build an Olympic team.”
Surf therapy programs like Surfers Not Street Children have helped remove the financial and skill-sharing barriers that once prevented local communities from paddling up to the lineup, through surfboard donations and access to free coaching and mentorship. And with the recent introduction of Surfing to the Olympics, the ease of access to social media to showcase success stories of African surfing pioneers like Cho, the young groms of African surf towns like Tofo have plenty of inspiration to encourage the next generation to start competitive surfing.
“There are a lot of good surfers coming out of the program,” says Cho. “We will be ready.”