J-Bay - The Town that Surf Built

Words by Andy Davis

If you ever visit Jeffreys Bay, the surf town that has sprung up around the world’s finest right hand point break, in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa, and you turn away from the surf shops, restaurants, guesthouses and the hallowed amphitheatre of Supertubes (the wave) and instead head up into the surrounding face-brick suburbia, it is unlikely that you will be overly impressed. Worse, if you drive too far through the J-Bay surf village, past the skatepark, Country Feeling and Natural Curve Surfboards, and end up amongst the ramshackle homes and broken streets of Pellsrus, you’ll really scratch your head and wonder what the hallowed waves of J-Bay are doing round the corner from the ghetto.

Mami Wata_Alan Van Gysen

Photo: Alan Van Gysen

So how did Jeffreys Bay get like this? And is the town a warning shot, or a case study for how surfing can drive growth and development? Well, maybe it's a bit of both.

AfroSurfonomics is the idea that a quality surf break and an engaged community of local surfers, do more than just support development, they actively catalyse it. A good wave is a non-extractive economic resource. So long as it’s protected, it will attract a slew of travelling surfers interested in surfing it. This they can only do for a few hours a day, the rest of the time they’re spending money to eat, drink and stay close enough to have another crack at the wave. But quality waves can foster more than just economic activity. They support the mental health, well being and general happiness of the surfers who ride them and can also serve to engender a sense of environmental stewardship and connection.

This unique set of developmental stimuli is something that happens (and has happened) all over the world, from Bali to the North Shore of Oahu to J-Bay, Praia in Cabo Verde, Busua in Ghana and the Almadies Peninsula of Dakar and beyond. The story of surfing is constantly being written in brick and mortar surrounding the spot where the waves break.

Jeffreys Bay was not always a surf spot. Back in the 1840s Captain Jeffreys, ran a cargo ship, trading up and down South Africa’s perilous East Coast. In 1849, scurvy caused him to come ashore at the beach now known as Kitchen Windows, where most J-Bay groms learn to surf. Captain Jeffreys liked what he saw, built himself a house (known as the White House) and set up a store, which became a convenient distribution point for the local farmers. Increasingly people came to the area, mainly to fish. They went out in big, double-ender rowing boats with sails, powered by ten-men rowing crews. And they weren’t looking for today’s dominant catch of calamari, or chokka as it’s known locally,  instead they caught geelbek, steenbras, snoek and leervis, using the abundant chokka as bait.

The town became relatively popular for holidays, mainly due to the fishing (is AfroFishonomics next?). In 1938, The Savoy Hotel opened. By 1945 J-Bay was home to a few hundred people, none of them surfers. It was Oom John Whitmore, widely regarded as the godfather of South African surfing, who first surveyed the area for waves on a business trip up the Garden Route in the 1950s and, as the story goes, came back smiling. But if he did discover the mechanical point of Jeffreys Bay, he didn’t tell many people about it.

But Jeffreys Bay was just about to meet surf culture head on and that would inspire a developmental explosion in the small fishing village. Bruce Brown’s film The Endless Summer kicked things off when it dropped in 1966. The film’s centrepiece was a session at another perfect right-hand wave known as Bruce’s Beauties in the town of St Francis Bay, roughly 20km south of J-Bay. This footage captured the surfing world’s attention and inspired many to put South Africa on their surfing bucket list. Locally, The Endless Summer had a similar effect on South African surfers and soon they made the trip to search for Bruce’s Beauties. In so doing they stumbled upon the more accessible point at J-Bay, which has even more perfect positioning and bathymetry (the shape of the reef under the water), picked up more swell and broke more often.

Mami Wata_Alan Van Gysen

Photo: Alan Van Gysen

One of the surfing world’s crown jewels had been discovered, was mapped and open for business... and pleasure.

Located about 3km up the road from the town Captain Jeffreys established his village, J-Bay, the wave was nothing more than an open lot behind the dune where people parked… sometimes for weeks. The local farmer installed a tap, to stop itinerant surfers from bothering him. In those days, visiting surfers either stayed at the Savoy Hotel, if they were minted, but most simply camped in the bushes or slept in their cars and kombis. By the late 60s, the town was basically overrun by permissive, dagga smoking, counter-culture hippy surfers, who obviously rubbed the conservative, predominantly Afrikaans local farmers and fishermen the wrong way. Conflict was inevitable. But it would be surfing that would make the town famous.

Responding to the desire to live close to a perfect wave, the land along the point was converted into plots and surfers and other wise local investors, gobbled them up. By 1970, according to local historian Robbie Hift, “Trust Bank bought the hillside, behind the break and called it WaveCrest and carved it up into roads with street lights, waterworks and other infrastructure and started selling plots off. Simultaneously on the beachfront, they flattened the sand dunes and started building high rise, flats, houses and apartments.” This was J-Bay’s first housing boom. As has been proved time and again, surfers catch on and generate the primary demand, then the broader society follows. It happened again in 1995. “People from all over SA realised what a relaxed and pleasant little holiday town it is and thought it would be great to come and live here, or to have a second home to escape from the stresses of working life in the city.” Hift continues. Then again in 2002, “the big property developers realised how much money was to be made. Masses of concrete followed. 3-4 story blocks of flats and housing estates popped up.” Again J-Bay boomed until the financial crisis of 2007.

A huge part of J-Bay’s development is due to its proximity, just 80km from South Africa’s 4th largest city, Port Elizabeth (recently renamed Gqeberha). That and the fact that owning a slice, and spending time in J-Bay, became a popular idea, kicked off by the surf community, but extending way beyond it.

The elephant in then room is that nothing ever developed normally in South Africa due to the legalised racial discrimination of apartheid. So J-Bay’s surf inspired developmental boom only ever served and benefited the white population. While the town of Jeffreys Bay enjoyed successive property booms and infrastructural development that stimulated diverse economic activity mostly amongst whites, nearby Pellsrus, the neighbourhood set aside for the town’s black residents, still remains largely undeveloped and impoverished. And even today, this side of J-Bay needs more housing and infrastructure as well as better educational facilities and social support.

However, it is now 27 years since the end of apartheid and surfing is slowly proving to have a benevolent and uplifting influence in the lives of Pellsrus locals, who surf. One of South Africa’s most exciting surfing talents is Joshe Faulkner, born, raised and still residing in and representing Pellsrus, J-Bay. Watch out for him on the WQS.

Joshe Faulkner_Mami Wata

Photo: Kody Mcgregor

One of the main influences contributing to the continued surf-inspired development in Jeffreys Bay, is that the wave has been a regular stop on the World Championship tour for well over 20 years. This pinnacle surf event brings a yearly carnival of international surfing to the town and attracts plenty of local and national interest too. Around the wave itself are a plethora of different surf accommodations (catering to every budget) as well as restaurants, takeaways, surf shops  and supermarkets. And while J-Bay surf events act as little economic accelerators, the wave itself continues to attract surf enthusiasts from the rest of South Africa and the world.

Possibly even more influential is the role surf media plays in selling the dream. Event or no event, every time the conditions line up and J-Bay gets perfect, any professional surfer, semi-pro, talented grom or retired surfing legend, local or within touching distance, homes in like bees to the honey. The resulting content, from Tik Toks and Insta videos to more artistic edits and photo galleries, drives the desire. As South African big wave world champion Cass Collier says, “at some point in their lives, every surfer wants to surf 6 foot J-Bay.”

The proof is in the stats, today the town of Jeffreys Bay is growing at more than 2.5% each year, making it one of the fastest growing towns in South Africa.

The term ‘surfonomics’ was first coined by the organisation Save the Waves, an international non-profit with the mission to protect surf ecosystems across the world. Save the Waves have defined three key ingredients required to protect a surf ecosystem. 1) A mobilised local constituency.  2) Legal protection of the area. 3) Effective stewardship to combat pollution, water quality, trash, erosion and other threats.

Mami Wata_Alan Van Gysen

Photo: Alan Van Gysen

Although Jeffreys Bay took a long and difficult road getting here, the town now meets all the criteria stipulated by Save the Waves as necessary to protect “the resource”. There is an engaged, mobilised, downright fanatical group of locals, tiered all the way from the fresh pack of groms to leathery sun-hammered legends and everyone in between. Surf events can’t get approved without buy-in from the local surfing clubs and associations. The wave and its surrounding dunes and ecosystems are legally protected by the municipality. And the whole stretch is stewarded by organisations such as the Supertubes Surfing Foundation, who exist to preserve the waves of J-Bay by rehabilitating coastal sand dunes and building and maintaining the walkways. All of which ensures that as a surf resource, J-Bay will deliver it’s goodness for many years to come.

The thing about development is that it’s always a work in progress. Where we are now, will not be where we find ourselves in a few years or even months. Despite a difficult racial history and consecutive, largely ill-considered property booms, surfing continues to define the growth and development of Jeffreys Bay, and increasingly all for the better. The town can offer an important example for other developing African surf destinations (Taghazout in Morocco, Ngor in Senegal, Robertsport in Liberia, Busua in Ghana, Tarkwa Bay in Nigeria, Caboledo in Angola and Ponta do Ouro in Mozambique to name but a few) to follow and hopefully avoid some of the mistakes that J-Bay made along the way.

As we grow, we get better. And that is the power of African surf.

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