Her brightly coloured locks say it all: Zandile Ndhlovu has one great passion in life – the ocean.
Zandi (33) is the freediving instructor and conservationist behind the Black Mermaid Foundation and is dedicating her life to helping young black people get into the water and overcome their fear of diving into the depths of the sea.
“I believe my connection with the water is not just surface level,” she tells us. “It’s something so much more.”
Hoping to break boundaries in a space that has not always been diverse, Zandi became South Africa’s first black freediving instructor last year. “My whole life I knew I was different,” she says of always wanting to swim against the current of life. “In the ocean I ended up finding home in a world I never thought possible.”
Zandi was born and raised in Soweto and only visited the beach during holidays to the Eastern Cape when she’d visit her gran. “Growing up in Soweto there were these municipal pools and it was 50 cents to go and swim but my mother never had money for that,” she says.
Later, in primary school, she was floundering in the school pool when another girl swam up to her and said, “Oh, you don't know how to swim? Get on my back and I'll swim you to the other side.” Zandi was determined to overcome her fear of the water.
She joined the school swimming team even though races and underwater challenges were not her strong suit. “My sister and I would be the last people to come back every time,” she says. “We never went for swimming lessons, but we just wanted to get out there and do it.”
Yet she was an adult when she truly fell in love with the water. “I often say Bali saved my life, the ocean saved my life” she says.
Zandi was going through a divorce in 2016 and headed to Southeast Asia with just a backpack on her back. “There was so much transforming of the woman I was in the time I was there.”
An experience of almost drowning in panic while snorkelling led her to learn how to duck dive and eventually saw her sitting at the bottom of the ocean with a divemaster, collecting shells. She returned from her trip invigorated and worked to get her scuba-diving certificate a year later.
“Then, a few years later, I came across this video of three girls swimming underwater with no tanks and I was intrigued. I later found out that they were freediving.”
Zandi gave up her own sales and marketing consultancy business, which she ran for five years, after finding her passion lays elsewhere. She qualified as a free diver in Sodwana Bay.
“The feeling is expansive – I fall into this place where I picture myself as a star falling through the night sky when I’m underwater.” She qualified as a freediving instructor in January last year – and then, two months later, Covid came along.
“My certificate was still shiny and new and somehow, as the world closed down, it gave me a beautiful opportunity to lean into it. My heart wanted to be in the water space. And so I did that.”
She started the Black Mermaid Foundation to introduce the ocean to the country’s black youth and to diversify representation in the ocean space.
“I know I had my own fears but I wondered, ‘What does it mean to create a future that is less fearful? Maybe we start with kids’.”
The foundation works primarily with kids in Langa, Cape Town, where on weekends groups of four children go out with a “real-life mermaid” for a snorkel experience.
Zandi, who now dives 34m into the inky ocean depths, hasn’t forgotten the little girl she once was, fearful of the deep blue. And for her, it’s all about expelling that fear in the younger generation today.
“When one of the children says, ‘Oh, look, it’s a fish; oh, look, it’s a starfish’, it means they have transcended the fear to actually look beneath the surface.
“It's just been such a beautiful journey.”