Zandile Ndhlovu, also known as the ‘black mermaid’ is the first black free-diving instructor in South Africa. For Zandile, it’s not about being defined by ‘the black box’ as she calls it, or the ‘women box’. It’s about using those labels as a diving board, allowing others to leap into depths that their cultural backgrounds have previously shied away from.
Her journey has been documented on a Corona Studios YouTube series called Free Range Humans, and it’s beyond worth watching. And not just for those curious about Zandile, or free-diving, or breaking cultural stigmas. It’s really for anyone who fears the unknown.
Zandile talks us through her life, from bustling Soweto to the beautiful depths of the ocean – two incredibly different settings, fostering two very different mindsets.
“For me it was always the story of the snake,” Zandile expresses when thinking back to how she once viewed the ocean through younger eyes. She recalls the narratives that she and many other black and brown children were told as precautionary measures toward bodies of water. “We grow up with this fear that there’s something in the water and at any point it could take you.”
As the waves begin crashing and pulling the water back in, if any of the kids didn’t make it, it means umNumza (the snake) is out. “As young black people a pool was daunting,” Zandile expresses.
However, it was on a trip to Bali in 2016, during a turbulent time in Zandile’s life that she would discover that the ocean was not a trap, but the place where she would find her freedom.
On a bicycle ride to breakfas, she heard someone calling out, “snorkeling trip!” Impuslively she decided to sign up. She got her mask and fins, then foreign items that would later become extensions of her body. She recalls being in awe as the the dive master beelined fearlessly straight to the bottom. Zandile decided to follow.
“I went down to the bottom and I was with him picking up these shells and looking at him,” she recalls the moment that her life changed.
“I’ll never forget the feeling, there was this place that existed that was for me.”
She would later come across a video of girls diving into the oceans without cylinders of oxygen, causing her to think “what witchery is this?” And that was where she discovered free diving, and the bliss of the unknown.
“You dive into space and all that surrounds you is a beauty and a peace like you’ve never known. You’re free from what is to come, what has happened. All that there is, is now. There’s nothing else that matters.”
Zandile was able to experience the popular maxim of living in the present and decided to make it her life.
However, for her, had she not been brave enough to take a dive into the unknown, she never would’ve found such peace. This is why she speaks about how cultural stigmas can be incredibly limiting.
It’s about relooking at the narrative people have been given. She explains that when it comes to water sports or experiences, there’s this mindset of “but that’s white people stuff”. For Zandile, it doesn’t need to be that way, and we have a responsibility to change that thought.
Her Black Mermaid Foundation was started with the intent to create a safe space for black and brown people to have discussions that will create opportunities.
It’s not just about the ocean, it’s about detaching from fear.
“Could the snake be there [in the water?]” I don’t know. All there is, is the present.
“I arrive here not with fear, but with respect.”
WATCH: Free Range Humans//Episode 6: THE BLACK MERMAID
Picture: Corona Canada/ Youtube