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Exclusive – Zandile Ndhlovu on fostering a more inclusive ocean

We spoke to South Africa’s first Black female freediving instructor about her mission to diversify the sea and educate young people of colour on the importance of preserving it.

Born in a land-locked South African township, far from any coastline, it wasn’t until adulthood that Zandile Ndhlovu first experienced the ocean.

Raised on warnings against the dangers of deep water and being taught that the sea was ‘white people’s space,’ Zandi was apprehensive.

Eight years ago, however, when she had the ‘incredible’ opportunity to snorkel for the first time, this outlook was flipped on its head and Zandi began to view the depths in a new light.

From this point onwards, empowered, inspired, and self-affirmed by her ability to explore what she refers to as an indubitably ‘magical place,’ Zandi has dedicated her existence to guaranteeing that young people of colour are able to develop the same ‘life-giving’ connection that she now holds.

‘It is where I found freedom,’ she tells us. ‘It is where my purpose is most affirmed.’

As South Africa’s first Black female freediving instructor, the country’s history of apartheid and the systems of racial injustice that still prevail today have acted as the driving force behind Zandi’s motivation to challenge the stereotypes she grew up surrounded by.

‘There are three aspects to the obstacles I faced as a child which prevented me from exploring the deep,’ she explains.

‘One: the continuous stories telling me I wasn’t to be in and around water. Two: the wider culture of who should be permitted to access it. And three: the normative.’

As Zandi divulges, the latter speaks to a narrative – one she is working to rewrite – that alienates BIPOC individuals from the ocean.

Because freedivers are most often white (or at least represented as such in modern media), ‘how the wetsuits fit, the commentary around hair,’ and the assumption of a reduced capability ‘isolates bodies that are already different.’

Yet as Zandi stresses, none of this matters to those who take the plunge.

‘Freediving is a mental battle, ’ she says. ‘So, when you’re down there – on a single breath I might add – discrimination beyond what you can achieve as a human being just slips away. This is notably in contrast to on land, where society is so banded, in identity, race, gender.’

Unfortunately, as Zandi alludes to, stigma above the surface remains an issue that, in South Africa particularly, means only 15 per cent of its population can swim.

As a result, up to four people drown every day in South Africa’s lakes, dams, oceans, and private pools, almost all of them Black.

It’s for this reason that Zandi established The Black Mermaid Foundation, which strives to foster greater diversity and inclusion in the white-dominated ocean space.

‘With a strategic approach combined with an outside-the-box perspective, we help people break through barriers, overcome doubts, and take a large stride towards accomplishing their goals,’ reads the Black Mermaid Foundation’s about page.

But how exactly is it doing this?

According to Zandi, by giving young people of colour the chance they deserve to safely transform their own narratives about who belongs in the sea.

‘These kids come from communities where they’re never taught to swim and where the ocean is observed through a lens of fear,’ she says.

‘We take them snorkelling so they can see the beauty beneath the surface and then return home to question anyone upholding these predominantly negative ideas.’

This kind of initiative is invaluable amid the climate crisis because it broadens the scope of people committed to fighting for a better future for our Earth.

In strengthening children’s desire to preserve fragile ecosystems, showing them first-hand what’s at stake (or ‘building the next generation of guardians’ as Zandi calls it), the Black Mermaid Foundation is bridging two important gaps.

‘Accessibility equals impact,’ says Zandi. ‘When people say we need to save our seas, our distance from it inhibits us from feeling compelled to act. But responsibility shouldn’t fall exclusively on the shoulders of those on the frontlines to understand the ocean’s suffering. As we increase representation, more people will start to care, and there will be more hands on deck.’

Expanding on the topic of environmental degradation, which concerns Zandi greatly, she tells us that there needs to be internal dialogue in many conservation spaces to amplify voices of colour while avoiding tokenism.

This is because, despite progress throughout the last decade to incorporate those bearing the brunt of worsening natural disasters in solution-based conversations, insincerity is holding us back from recognising that we’re all in this together.

‘We have to unite rather than isolate,’ she says. ‘The Black Mermaid Foundation is always asking how we can create access that fosters connection which is a currency to care. This brings to the surface the longing for guardianship we all have within us.’

The Black Mermaid Foundation isn’t Zandi’s only avenue of change, however.

In partnership with WaterBear, she’s released a documentary which seeks to encourage people of colour to consume more content that pushes them to get involved with reclaiming the ocean and, ultimately, protecting it.

Similar, in part, to Halle Bailey’s casting as the Little Mermaid, which Zandi says is successfully inspiring the global majority to become stakeholders in worlds they rarely see themselves represented in.

‘Stories are told in the imagination, but the power of storytelling is that it expands on how we think and magnifies the possibility of collective human impact,’ she finishes.

The Black Mermaid documentary is a story of so many people of colour.’

‘My hope is that in seeing what happens when individuals who look like them expand past what they know, recount tales of their personal battles, express their aspirations to be invited into the spaces they want to enjoy, real, tangible change will be championed in every corner of our planet.’