Cheron Kraak: The matron saint of South African surfing
Compared to Australia, the US, and even new powerhouses such as Brazil, surfing in South Africa is relatively tiny. In a country of soaring unemployment, vicious poverty, rampant crime, and an economy spiraling downwards, not much mainstream attention gets plied on our little past time. And yet despite this surfing in South Africa continues to thrive.
With an estimated 20,000 active surfers in the country, it is an extremely small pursuit, and as such, it's a tight industry with few people elbowing at the top of the pyramid.
One person who has had her time jostling is Cheron Kraak. Based in Jeffreys Bay, the former Billabong licensee still plays an integral part in the South African surf industry, and her story is a colourful, and at times frenetic, ramble through time. Cheron's matronly tentacles reach into every aspect of South African surfing.
It all started on the beach in J'Bay, with Cheron making Country Feeling boardies with her sewing machine, wanting to somehow sustain a life on the beach. Her clothes were functional and considered cool by the surfers of J'Bay, amongst whom Country Feeling developed a following.
Making homemade boardshorts to maintain a beach lifestyle: It's been the dream of many surfing entrepreneurs, one in particular played a hand in Cheron's success.
In the 60s and 70s, Gordon Merchant was a hardcore surfer and a shaper of some renown. Before he started making his triple stitched Billabong boardies, he was chasing waves and perfecting his tucked-under edge rail design. A combination of these influences found him returning to J'Bay, hanging out with glasser Ari Kraak, who would in time marry Cheron Habib. In the early 80s Gordon signed a little-known 15 year old kid to Billabong, and in 1984 he brought the kid over for Cheron's event - the Country Feeling Surf Classic at Supertubes. The kid, of course, was Occy.
The Country Feeling contest itself was mind-blowing and it introduced two of the most amazing elements of modern day surfing: Occy's full tilt backhand attack on the perfect canvas of firing Supers.
As surely as he was born to stand on a surfboard, Occy had a congenital attachment to Supers. Billabong Pro bottom turn, 2005 (WSL)
However, that wasn't the only significant introduction at the Country Feeling Surf Classic. Gordon Merchant met Cheron Kraak and he suggested that she make a few Billabong boardies.
“It didn’t happen straight away,” recalls Cheron of the start of Billabong in South Africa. “Billabong had its own identity, with triple stitching, badging, and they were using different fabrics so it took us a while to get it right.”
But it was a beginning. J'Bay was a quiet little town back then and there wasn't too much happening in the way of retail, and though the surf industry was beginning to flourish in Australia and the US it remained a cottage industry in South Afrcia. Business was small but steady, and the surf industry started growing, and more and more people started arriving in J'Bay to surf the perfect waves of Supertubes.
“Our first real push was when Billabong started with their lumo boardies,” remembers Cheron of the fluoro print era. “Money was always an issue, and we couldn't afford to import the lumo fabric at the time. We used to order plain canvas fabric, and then rolled it out and used these hand-held spray guns and sprayed lumo colours onto the fabric, and then ironed it to fix the dye. It was a crazy time. We also used to use this industrial cloth, the same material that you use for flour bags, and soften it and use it for some of our apparel lines.”
Under Cheron, Billabong had a timeous introduction to the South African surf industry, quickly sponsoring local surfers, sponsoring events, and executing exciting marketing campaigns with surf media, mainly the flagship Durban-based surf magazine Zigzag. There were many startup magazines over the years, and Cheron ardently supported the underdogs - she advertised in each and every one. She initiated the hugely popular Billabong Junior Series, which is currently the longest running Junior Series in the world, and under her watch the Billabong Pro became South Africa's premier event. It began its life as the Beach Hotel Classic in 1981 - and was won by Shaun Tomson - became the Country Feeling Surf Classic before a long run as the Billabong Pro (it's since been renamed the Corona Open J'Bay).
The infrastructure for the 1984 Country Feeling Surf Classic, won by Occy on his maiden trip to J'Bay
Billabong’s growth in South Africa was in the midst of a tumultuous and dark time in South African history, with Apartheid policies in full swing. Taking matters into her own hands, Cheron sponsored surfers of colour*, including top professional surfers Davey Stolk and Cass Collier - who would go on to be crowned 1999 big wave world champ. Considering the times, it was an extremely progressive approach.
South Africa was not an easy place to live in back then. The sporting boycotts were beginning: Tom Carroll boycotted South Africa, Tom Curren too, while Martin Potter followed the Union Jack, first to Britain then Australia. At home, Cheron used to run little surf contests for the South African Surfing Union, an association for surfers of colour.
These Union guys used to come up from Cape Town and down from Durban to surf, and they'd be joined by local guys like the Jeggels brothers, yet under our Apartheid laws at the time they were "not allowed to use the beaches or the amenities thereof".
“We would get together and have little events for the Union guys,” remembers Cheron. “Apart from Davey, and later Cass, there were guys like Rafiq Bagus and Shani Nagia and members of the Wynberg Surf Club. Country Feeling and Billabong sponsored their first event at Kitchen Windows, and there was this chubby traffic cop who used to gives us shit and tell us to get off the beach, but he couldn't really do anything.”
It must be remembered that rioting and uprising in Apartheid-era South Africa reached its apex in 1990, with the former ruling National Party declaring a state of emergency in the country from 1985 until 1990. Nelson Mandela was released in 1990, and was made president in 1994. To have surfers of colour sponsored during those dark days was against the grain.
One of those surfers, Rafiq Bagus, went on to massive success in business and government, becoming special adviser to the South African Trade and Industry Minister Alec Erwin for a time, as well as the Chief Executive Office for Trade and Investment South Africa. He remembers those days well.
“In South Africa back then we had the South African Council Of Sport [SACOS] and we formed the Wynberg Surf Club in order to be recognized by SACOS,” recalls Rafiq.
“We decided that we needed to have an SA Champs surfing competition to legitimize our club. At the time the Herstigte Nasionale Party, a far right group of the ruling National Party, ran J'Bay and they said that we were not allowed to run a contest in J'Bay. So Cheron said that if they did not allow the contest to run, she would close her factory and move it to a homeland."
"She was already employing a fairly large percentage of the local population, and if the factory were to close down, unemployment could have devastated the town. We ran our contest down at Kitchen Windows, and it was sponsored by Country Feeling and Billabong.”
These days Rafiq marvels at Cheron's defiance. “That is the most remarkable thing about it all,” recalls Rafiq. “At the time we were students, we were activists, and we were not her customers. We were poor, fighting on the streets, attending marches, our houses were being raided, and we were the people getting arrested. The police were looking for us, and I even had to go on the run for about eight months one year...but still Cheron supported us," says Rafiq.
"She was very selfless and she took risks with us. We were beleaguered by the situation in South Africa, and she actually taught us a lot at the time. We have much to thank Cheron for. She is an incredible woman.”
Cass Collier on the cover of Zigzag dropping into triple-overhead Crayfish Factory
As well as nurturing friendships, Cheron had a knack for nurturing business relationships - often to great success.
In the early 90s, Zigzag magazine owner Paul Naude headed over to America to head up Gotcha, a role he served for six years before news from South Africa changed his course.
In 1998 Bob Hurley suddenly left Billabong USA where he was CEO and president, so Gordon Merchant had an urgent hole to fill. Cheron takes up the story: "Gordon went to America to find someone. Paul was in the States and I knew Gordon was interviewing. I phoned Paul, but he said that he was not interested in the position. I said, 'Paul, please man, just go and meet Gordon.’"
"Then I told Gordon to phone Paul, and I made about seven international phone calls that day. I was so keen on getting Paul in there, and that afternoon Paul finally met Gordon. And that was that. Gordon even thanked me for that. I framed it!”
Cheron and Paul's longstanding friendship developed into a succesful working relationship, with a massive surge in Billabong’s sales enjoyed by both. Paul’s experience and best practices coupled with Cheron’s hard-working ethic saw Billabong become the top brand among the youth of South Africa around the turn of the century.
At the time, Cheron’s nephew Grant 'Twiggy' Baker represented the brand in Durban. Apart from selling T-shirts and hard goods, Twiggy was also an avid surfer and kiteboarder, as well as a developing big wave surfer. In the early 2000’s Twig caught a break. After securing an invite to the Red Bull Big Wave Africa at Dungeons, Twig got a chip shot on the wave of the day - a legitimate twenty foot day - and made it to the bottom as the wave exploded all around him. But not before the shot was taken. Where that shot lies today no one knows, but it signifies the start of a big wave career that saw many wins, including a victory at the final Red Bull Big Wave Africa, plus two big wave world titles.
For much of his big wave pro career, Twiggy surfed with Billabong's distinctive logo on his boards, yet in 2013 the two decade-long sponsorship ended.
That same year, Paul Naude resigned from Billabong to launch his own brand, Vissla. When Twiggy accepted his second big wave world title he was sporting the Vissla 'V' logo on his boards.
Twiggy winning the 2008 Big Wave Africa at Dungeons (Red Bull)
When it came to the world of marketing and media, Cheron understood the message and how to deliver it. In 2001, Billabong took over sponsorship of the Teahupo’o event from Gotcha, while at the same time digital technology was making the cost of DVDs almost viable. In South Africa, Cheron put a Billabong Pro Teahupo’o DVD on the cover of every Zigzag magazine for that particular issue. It was a first for the magazine, and possibly the first DVD on a cover in South Africa, as other magazines like Men’s Health were more prone to putting mini deodorants and moisturising sachets onto their covers. The DVD was incredible featuring the most crazy footage of Teahupo’o yet shot.
For the editor of Zigzag at the time, it was the stuff of dreams, and it happened to be me. We upped the print run to ridiculous numbers, figured out how to get the DVDs onto shelves without too much theft, and it turned out to be the best selling issue in the history of the magazine up to that date.
Craig Sims was the publisher of Zigzag at the time, and Billabong had one of the biggest accounts with the magazine. Sims, who is now an owner/publisher of Surfing Life and White Horses, remembers those days well.
“In business Cheron played soft and hard,” recalls Sims. “A humble, generous and charming lady who could also be ferocious and formidable in battle. I didn’t battle with her much, but publishers can’t be friends with everyone all the time, so it was inevitable. I’ve battled with most, and Cheron is top three most scary. You’d be shitting yourself before it even started because you knew what you were going into - a chaotic street fight against an opponent who would stop at nothing to defend her position. And then win or lose, when it’s over, it’s over. No hard feelings, no grudges. Just that gentle, all embracing generous spirit again. You can’t not respect that. She’s an awesome lady and a very dear friend.”
Another family that became 'family' was the Le Roux's. Dad John came in as the Eastern Cape and Western Cape rep. “I really wanted John to work for me, because I knew he would be good,” recalls Cheron. John’s wife Lucia also joined the company, and worked with Cheron all the way through until 2007. Jevon, their son, took over as Billabong rep for the Western Cape, and also banked a win at the iconic Billabong/Country Feeling Surf Classic event in 1997, which was a WQS event at the time. Jevon went on to run Hurley in South Africa to great success and is currently a Director of Gloria Jean’s Coffees in Australia.
Cheron left Billabong at the end of the 2006/2007 financial year, yet she didn't slow down, acquiring the flourishing Firewire license in South Africa as well as many other business interests. She still attends all the events in J'Bay, and just as they did in the early 80s, surfers still come and stay with her. Even when it's not about business, Cheron maintains a firm link to the South African surf industry through her extended family and huge circle of friends.
Brad Bricknell, owner of surf business site The Business Of Surf worked under Cheron as a Marketing Manager at Billabong in South Africa.
“I have fond memories of working under Cheron,” says Brad. ”She was very firm, knew exactly what she wanted, but she was also compassionate with a giving heart. She is a very generous lady and one of the most gracious hosts you’ll ever have the pleasure of meeting. She certainly contributed to positively changing the landscape of the surf industry in South Africa and put so much into elevating junior surfing events that in my opinion, helped produce so many world class surfers”.
Opening photo of Cheron by Jamie Brisick.
* The term 'surfer of colour' is used in the South African context where it is deemed accceptable.