Zandile Ndhlovu is South Africa’s first Black female free-dive instructor. Her passion for the ocean allows her to build a more inclusive ocean through The Black Mermaid Foundation. We spoke to Zandile about her journey into the sea.
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Where did your journey begin?
In 2016 I was going through some personal challenges. My marriage was ending and I decided to take a trip to Bali.There was this guy who was announcing “snorkel trips, snorkel trips”. It was something I always wanted to do. I remember jumping off the boat and thinking I was drowning, but I wasn’t. On the second dive I just felt at home. I didn’t grow up next to the ocean, and had never been a swimmer. But I just found this home in the ocean.
When I got back home I just wanted to feel that again. So I started scuba-diving. I was scrolling around Instagram and I saw these girls swimming with no equipment at the bottom of the ocean. It was so fascinating to me, and I found out it was free-diving. Then I knew this is what I wanted to do. When I did my first free-diving course in 2018, it took me back to that feeling I had before in Bali. With free-diving I wanted to teach. I wanted to create ease of access. It changed my whole life. I am a self-taught swimmer. Throughout high school I didn’t really swim at all.
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How did this transition into a job for you?
I definitely knew from the start with free-diving my life couldn’t continue as it was. In 2020 I was still working in traditional business – I was doing consultancy work with corporates and the pandemic gave me an opportunity to pause and reflect on what I really wanted to do. This was the moment I was waiting for. Every day I was in the pool doing laps, and now I could create something I always wanted. I remember thinking back when I was scuba-diving how I was always the only Black person on the boat each time we went diving.
Even then it was only an Indian man from Sri-Lanka. I never shared a boat with another Black person who was South African. That meant that every time I dived I was the outsider, and it felt isolating. I knew I wanted to create a safe space for Black people to explore the water. Also in a way that did not come with preconceived notions. I want to take away the narrative that sits on Black bodies when we show up at beaches; Black people don’t swim and dive. In order for me to see the change that I want I need to start in schools. I need the kids to know that there is work in the ocean besides the traditional professions.This is where I started the Black Mermaid Foundation.
I created these characters Lwandle and Kanyezi, a merman and mermaid. I’m doing a children’s book about them and possibly an animation. Representation is important. When you see yourself being represented everything begins to change. I just started calling myself the Black Mermaid in my journey. I call myself this because it is so rare. I’m creating a dream I wish I had growing up. I want things to be the norm, not this constant narrative of the first Black person to do something every time. We need to move away from the world of “firsts” to the world of exploration in spaces we have gone into.
How do we go diving with you?
I can be contacted on Instagram or through my website to sign up for free-diving courses. I am based in Cape Town but I run courses in Durban and Johannesburg. There is nothing to be afraid of, and I create a safe space that is affirming. I don’t want this to be a once-off thing. With the Black Mermaid Foundation it is fully self-funded. I would work then put money aside to work with kids. At the moment I am working with kids in Langa in Cape Town.
I am working through the community center because it is more engaging in the community. So that free-diving belongs to the community and not just in schools. Every time I get my next bit of work I can put aside money to go to the ocean with the kids. We are land-based ocean creatures, and that we must lean into it. Everybody can free-dive so go for it.
Follow Zandile on Twitter for more updates. The Black Mermaid Foundation is always in need of diving gear and equipment and appreciates any help offered.