As an American, I forget that skateboarding has histories outside of the U.S.’s rusty, crusty, bacon-cheeseburger landscape. But skateboarding has a way of persevering, even in the absence of manufacturers, shops, and perfect red curbs. South Africa is one such place, where skateboards have actually rolled since the early ’60s.
To get a sense of how skateboarders are faring there today, I talked with a local from Cape Town, a city on the very southern tippy-tip of South Africa.
Salik Harris is 35 years old and for the past ten years has been running a very hands-on clothing brand—everything, including the sewing, is done in a studio in Cape Town. That kind of “do it yourself because no one else is gonna do shit for you” approach is also what’s kept skateboarding alive in South Africa.
Peep this local vid (made w/ help from Power Horse and Sole) to see the beautifully chunky Cape Town spots yourself. Then see what Salik has to say about the recent uptick in skating in South Africa, and be thankful that decks (probably) don’t cost $120 where you live, and that the only crime you have to look out for at your local park is vlogging.
Starting in the 1970s, skateboarding in South Africa has grown and died a few times. How’s the South African skate scene today?
When I started, I remember there was no one in my area that actually skated. I always needed to find someone to skate with. Then some guys moved into my area that were from Germany, and they were a group of skateboarders that just came down to skate and film and live here. That was the first time I actually experienced other people from other parts of the world skating, and ever since then, you can’t walk down the road without seeing someone skateboard. It’s booming at the moment.
We try to get some boards from [our local shop] Baseline ’cause people buy a new setup, take whatever they don’t need, and give it to the kids, and just try and like uplift the community because they need skateboarding. They need something to do bro. And this area’s perfect for it, all the hills and stuff like that.
Why do the kids there need skateboarding?
This area called Bo-kaap [in Cape Town] is one of the only areas where you’d go in the road and see people playing cricket, and in the following road someone playing soccer, whereas a lot of other communities are very closed off. You don’t see kids playing outside. Here everyone used to be on their stoops or chilling at the shops, doing naughty things on the corner. But now you go to the corner and there will be a two-stair and six kids with two skateboards, each one having a turn.
Skateboarding took me away from a lot of things that could have ended really horrible. It kind of was addictive, so it’s all I wanted to do. I could have found so many other things addictive, and I’m really glad I found skateboarding addictive.
How expensive are skateboards in South Africa? Is it the kind of thing most parents can afford for their kids?
It’s always been expensive and not very accessible, especially with there being like one skateshop. If you were a kid wanting to start skating, you’d usually get one of those irregular boards and it’d be under par. A Fucking Awesome deck would be about 1,800 Rand. Maybe like $120 USD?
Are there any skateboard manufacturers in South Africa?
There are a few small local board company’s but recently two merged to create Slappy, our more established board company, printing very limited runs of graphics and supplying boards at a more affordable price for the locals
I’ve read that surfers can make a living from just surfing in South Africa, but even the best skaters can’t make a living from just skating. Is that still the case?
No, you can’t. If I look at all the pros down here, or what I consider pro in my eyes, they all have a side job. Well, a job, and skateboarding is a side thing. It’s not like surfing, because a lot of world pros are from South Africa. Jordy Smith, he’s one of the best and he’s from here. I don’t think it’s in the same category because he must be earning crazy amounts of money, whereas the pro skateboarders, I don’t think earn any money. Maybe they get a little something from Vans now and then but no big-time salaries. We don’t have anyone here at that level.
I read about one guy in this video who ran youth skateboard programs at skateparks in rough neighborhoods. How’s that going?
Charl [Jensel], yeah. So Charl is one of my closest friends, he and someone else started Indigo Youth Movement, and they’re a movement that uplifts skateboarding throughout South Africa. They would go into townships where there wouldn’t even be a road, and they’d build a sick-ass halfpipe and a pool. Tony Hawk came down to the one in Durban and sponsored them. I think it’s still running.
Charl would take an old basketball court, that was just like a local gang hangout in a very dangerous area, and build a skatepark.
How did they get gangsters to leave a space to build a skatepark? Sounds tricky.
I guess everyone understands that things for the kids are for the future. Anything for the youth is for the future. I think people understand that.
But people would get robbed and stabbed at some of these skateparks, right?
Yeah. There are a few places that are really rough. One of the best skateparks we have is in the roughest area, and it’s just not safe to go there. You have to go there with a squad of so many skaters, otherwise, you’re just gonna get robbed. It’s one of those things that when you get there and you’re skating, other people know skateboards are expensive, so it’s like a commodity, so they’ll just take your skateboard and leave you standing there.
“I guess everyone understands that things for the kids are for the future.”
I wonder if any of the gangsters who stole skateboards ended up skating themselves.
Never thought about that. I wonder if they do. I think they would just sell it, to be honest.
Do you think the South African government is more willing to invest in public skateparks now because of the Olympics?
There actually has been a lot of skateparks and developments happening in South Africa for the past maybe five years. What they’re doing is taking empty spaces and just basically putting up a skatepark. When I was growing up, there were two private skateparks, you paid when you came there, have to wear a helmet… But now the government has actually started putting a little bit of budget into it and creating little skateparks.
You own a clothing brand, Leaf Apparel. Is owning a clothing business pretty stable?
In South Africa, a lot of people are two-job kind of people. To this day I still do a lot of different things like styling for other brands, photography, creative direction. But it takes a lot of time to build something, so I never went into it wanting to make money. For me, it was more like a passion project that turned into a bigger passion project.
Have you ever heard of any skateboarders having a stylist?
I’ve heard a rumor that Supreme hired a stylist to advise some of their skaters what to wear when they’re filming videos.
I think it’s because of capsules, so a new Supreme video will feature the latest capsule. Like, take off the old Supreme pants from 2019 and wear the 2021 ones with this T-shirt because they drop together. I think it’s more of that. This is the first time I’m hearing that they have a stylist, but it’s probably because they want all the clothing to be on par with the current collection.
Right now in the U.S., it’s popular to dress like you’re going to do construction work.
What’s the cool streetwear in South Africa?
I would say still Carhartt, a lot of Stussy, a lot of corduroy. I wouldn’t say we’re on par but we’re not far behind, especially in terms of fashion. I think that a long time ago, there would always be this huge gap because of seasonals, so you guys will have a season and we will have a season. Because of that huge gap, we get stuff a lot later than you, and then we follow the trend a lot later. But with today’s age, social media is so strong, you’re seeing exactly what’s happening in Paris Fashion Week, so we catch on quicker. You kind of know exactly what’s popping because you’re seeing your favorite person whether they’re a singer or a dancer or fashion icon wearing a certain thing, so you’re gonna be influenced by that. Back in the day, it would take months for something to come here.
So dressing like a construction worker is still cool there, too?
I think Carhartt is just because of the durability. When my parents were my age and they went to buy clothing, the better brand was established because of the quality. Quality of the fabric, construction, all of those things. Nowadays, a lot has to do with hype and advertising.
What do you think of the trend of wearing utility vests with cargo pockets and orange reflective stripes? It looks like you’re ready to diffuse a bomb or something.
I’m a very minimal guy so I don’t wear a lot of stuff that’s reflective, but I have designed something like that.
Down here we have these parking guards, and if you have to park your car in town, there’ll be so many guys standing around wearing construction vests. If someone’s wearing the construction vest with the reflective orange stripes, it means they’re there to look after your car. When you come back you give them the 20 Rand or 5 Rand or whatever you have, and that’s literally like a culture. You will go to a corner and see Jerome, and two meters down you’ll see Simba. Ten years later you will still see Jerome and Simba, because that’s Jerome’s corner, and that’s Simba’s corner.
That vest symbolizes work, it symbolizes the South African hustle, so I designed something like that because for me it represented South Africa. It wasn’t part of a trend, but more what inspired me when I thought of our country.
Are there any skate logos that don’t look good on clothing? I always thought the enjoi pooping panda design looked pretty stupid.
It’s just weird because I don’t like big prints, and if I put my logo on the back of a T-shirt and I make it big, it doesn’t look right. But if I look at a Palace T-shirt, that logo is huge, it just looks so right. It’s just got to do with how the logo is.
“I’ve come across a lot of people that thought there are lions everywhere and wildlife everywhere. It’s a whole-ass city, bro.”
What makes a good logo and what makes a bad one?
My brand, because it’s Leaf, it’s rooted basically through botany because I studied botany. I studied horticulture, and I know so much about plants.
Have you ever been on a safari?
Yeah. A lot of people think it’s everywhere over here. Like South Africa. I’ve come across a lot of people that thought there are lions everywhere and wildlife everywhere. It’s a whole-ass city, bro. I have to fly to Joburg to see a lion.
Would you recommend it?
Definitely. The wildlife in South Africa is amazing. Especially the plant life.
It seems cool but then in the back of my head, I wonder if it’s better for the animals if they were just left alone.
I also have that thought, but that’s a whole other chat bro. I love animals and I don’t eat meat. I’m a vegetable guy.
What are your hopes for skating in the future in South Africa?
I want it to look like a serious sport, and I want the people who have been putting in the work to actually reap the benefits, the equivalent of other sportsmen. ‘Cause if you think of the risk to reward ratio, it’s mad fucked up. Such a risky sport and then you don’t get paid on top of it.
When I was younger, I got a lot of free stuff from skate shops kind of flowing me, and it made me feel a sense of belonging. I also want to be that type of figure for other kids. I’d hope to be in a situation where I can help all the people I want to help, in terms of my friends. If they skate, they should be earning lots of money. I wanna be in a situation where I could be like, here’s a salary. ‘Cause no one else is doing that.