Beyrick Thulani De Vries - The White Zulu
"It's awesome to see surfing prevail through this black and white bullshit. With surfing, colour falls away.”
Interview by Daryl Mersom
Photography by @alanvangysen
"When I was born I was on the front page of the newspapers because my dad gave me a Zulu middle name, Thulani. Death threats were sent to my dad saying, ‘You might love the black man - but don’t be so savage and put this on your son.’ "
I am sitting with South African pro surfer Beyrick De Vries in his seafront apartment. Outside we can hear Dutchie’s booming commentary of The Ballito Pro vie with the crashing Indian Ocean.
This is a country with a complex recent history, where naming a child is a political act. The name Beyrick Thulani De Vries, which splices Dutch and Zulu together, was given to the surfer by his father Ray, after Ray's experiences training Willie Mtolo, the first South African to win the New York Marathon in 1992, with a time of 2:09:29.
Willie’s achievement preceded the end of apartheid by two years (it was officially brought to an end in 1994 through the election of a non-white coalition) and flouted the sporting embargoes placed on South Africa. In fact, he was only able to compete because Beyrick’s father owned a hotel in Hillcrest and let black athletes stay there free of charge.
Shortly after Willie’s victory, Beyrick’s mother found out that she was pregnant. Because of this fateful timing, the child’s name would be inextricably linked to the political moment of 1992.
“All of the Zulu and Xhosa guys from the different tribes have English names in South Africa, but the white guys don’t have to have Zulu names. Willie questioned my dad about this, and consequently, my parents gave me the name ‘Thulani’ – which means the quiet one, and is of course terribly inappropriate", Beyrick tells me with a smile.
“We’ve still got the photograph framed of my dad holding me with all of the press trying to get photos because this young white boy is called ‘Thulani’. The world saw this all happen. Willie went to meet the president and America loved it. This was a person who wasn’t allowed to go to the same beaches as a white person. It seems ridiculous to us now".
“It’s a very fragile time in South Africa even though it’s pretty much twenty-five years after apartheid. There’s still a lot of hatred, it’s almost apartheid reversed"
The politically charged circumstances surrounding Beyrick’s birth have not failed to give him an incisive take on the issue of race relations in South Africa.
He speaks plainly and chooses not to sugar-coat topics that others would in the presence of a visiting foreigner.
“It’s a very fragile time in South Africa even though it’s pretty much twenty-five years after apartheid. There’s still a lot of hatred, it’s almost apartheid reversed. Obviously what the white man did to the black man was evil, but the sons of the white men are paying for it now."
“And it shows a lot through sports. There are a lot of quotas on rugby and cricket, they really want the black guys to be coming through. If you see a South African rugby team it makes sense that there are more black guys than white guys. But the reason that we all surf is because there are no rules. It’s freedom, it’s connecting with something greater than you every single day, and it is awesome to see surfing prevail through this black and white bullshit. With surfing, colour falls away."
One of the issues with quotas is that you risk athletes being included in teams and events first and foremost for their race, and for their talents second. Beyrick points out to me that for fellow competitor Michael February, who has been outside ripping whilst we have been talking, this is simply not the case.
“He's surfing the best out of anyone in South Africa right now. A good surfer is a good surfer. And it hasn’t been through government influence that he has made it, he could be luminescent orange, the way he surfs is the way he surfs. And his surfing has done him justice."
“In Africa you have to earn paradise", Beyrick says, changing tack, recalling his travels across the continent in search of waves.
“South Africa is probably the ‘upper-class’ Africa, but there are still a lot of dangerous things that go on in your day to day life. When we go on trips out of the country, especially to Mozambique, you have to travel through some pretty sketchy towns. To get to the paradise beaches, the palm trees, and the serenity, you have to go through a lot of danger. Good waves are in random places, you have to go to random towns that you would never go to otherwise".
"South Africa is probably the ‘upper-class’ Africa, but there are still a lot of dangerous things that go on in your day to day life"
These surf missions have yielded their fair share of stories, and as Alan Van Gysen (the photographer whose images accompany this piece) pointed out to me, it is often the times we face adversity that we remember most fondly. The car may have broken down in Angola forcing you to spend the night, but that may lead you to meet some fascinating new friends. These guys share a positive outlook on such experiences.
“The Transkei is a really hectic place when you drive through it. You really want to get through it before 7am. Midday is OK, but in the evening there is a lot of bumper to bumper traffic. It’s a very raw area, and especially Mthatha, where Nelson Mandela is from, a Xhosa town, it can take you about two hours to get through if there is traffic".
“A month ago we were in traffic and a group of guys got eye contact with us, split up and came around us from different sides. My friend was driving and I was in the passenger seat. One guy went in front trying to get our attention, to distract us, the other to the back, but we had our board bags there which were about 30 kilos.
So I saw the guy trying to steal something, I got out and walked up to him. They didn’t seem like evil people, they were just opportunists. In Africa that is how they make their money, there aren’t enough job opportunities created by the government".
“Another day we were leaving a music venue, and often in crowded places pickpockets will act drunk and as though they are your friend. So this guy came around me and was being really friendly, ‘my brother, my brother’, he kept saying. Then I just felt his hands go into my back right pocket and my left, he had his hands on my wallet and my phone. Then we got eye contact, and I went to him, ‘oh, you’re trying to mug me’. Luckily I got to punch him very hard in the face and stopped that from happening".
Whilst these stories focus on the problems faced by surfers in South Africa, there are of course numerous advantages to living in this beautiful country – the photographs accompanying this piece surely testify to that. There is also a certain degree of freedom which comes from living here.
“First World countries seem epic with safety, but here you get to live a lifestyle not controlled by the government". For surfers Africa is itself a largely unexplored continent, with exciting new spots waiting to be found. “There are so many hidden gems because everyone is scared of the unknown, of the dark continent Africa."
“If you look at Africa, it’s pretty much a massive left and right point break, the way the swell comes in from the south. We don’t yet know the waves that can be found on the African coastline".
As our conversation draws to a close, and the ocean persists over the commentary on the beach, I am left assured that Beyrick will continue to seek out these spots on the African coastline, and will keep on sharing his stories with others.