In Soweto, Johannesburg, traditional folklore paints the open ocean as a place to be feared. Humans have no business entering its murky and mysterious depths.
Cultural narratives like that, coupled with the undertones of South Africa’s apartheid past and the haunting legacy of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, left Zandile Ndhlovu with an aversion to open water growing up. In her home country, only about 15 percent of the population could swim, and historically, access to swimming facilities and lessons largely catered to white folks. Few Black children had access to public pools. “All we knew growing up is that you needed to stay away from all bodies of water,” Ndhlovu recalls. “That changes the culture of any kind of water relationship that you could have had.”
But during a trip to the Eastern Cape at the age of 12, Ndhlovu found herself inexplicably captivated by the waves breaking upon the shore. Their steady, calming thrum seemed to beckon to her.
She wouldn’t answer that call for another 16 years, but at the age of 28, during a snorkeling excursion on a trip to Bali, Ndhlovu felt that same pull. When she held her breath and dove underwater, she was welcomed into a seascape teeming with life.
It was at this moment when Ndhlovu realized the ocean perhaps had a different story to tell than the one ingrained in her as a child. She hadn’t even dived down three meters (about 10 feet) when a singular thought came into her mind: “This is it.”
A new story
“This” came to mean many things to Ndhlovu. Not just a new hobby — freediving — but also a new sense of purpose and a new narrative about the power of the ocean. This story wasn’t about fear but the sense of freedom and fulfillment one felt while enveloped by the ocean’s embrace.
“Freediving is diving into yourself, diving into your fears,” she says. “It’s not about where you’re diving to; it’s just about where you are right now.”
But as Ndhlovu explored her newfound passion, she couldn’t help but notice that few people looked like her on dive boats. From wetsuits that weren’t tailored to Black women’s bodies to remarks that inadvertently labeled her as “other,” Ndhlovu grew frustrated with the lack of representation in the sport.
Such observations sparked Ndhlovu to take action. She wanted to share the life-changing experience of freediving with other Black folks, starting with the younger generation of South Africans. Not only did she go on to become South Africa’s first Black female freediving instructor, but she also founded The Black Mermaid Foundation, an organization that helps demystify the ocean — and democratize access to it — for Black children.
Taking the mic
In building the Black Mermaid Foundation, Ndhlovu harnesses the power of technology as a global microphone. For her, technology isn’t just a tool; it’s a connector that enables the sharing and exploration of diverse stories.
At the heart of her daily operations is the Dell XPS 13 Plus, a crucial companion that empowers her to not only create content and engage with potential partners but also to dream without boundaries. Through collaborations like the one with Dell’s Welcome to Now campaign, she amplifies her foundation’s mission of creating access to ocean spaces, showcasing the intersection of technology, storytelling, and limitless possibilities in the pursuit of a shared global community.
From the ocean’s depths, Ndhlovu captures evocative images and videos, instantly transferring them to her laptop. This imagery allows her to educate and inspire others who, like her, might have grown up thinking of the ocean as an exclusionary or scary place.
“It’s an opportunity to show [kids] what to expect when we go in water, but most importantly, to feel like they belong in the water,” she says. “All of these moments aren’t tangible if you’ve never seen them before.”
The laptop’s features and capabilities, including long battery life, portability, and a sharp display, also allow Ndhlovu to take her work with her on the go — whether that’s to a community workshop or a coastal expedition. Dell’s devices, which are known for their reliability ,robust performance and identity and privacy protection features provided by McAfee, consistently cater to the multifaceted needs of professionals like Ndhlovu.
With her foundation’s continued growth, Ndhlovu hopes to keep making waves in more ways than one. She has ambitious plans for expansion; she aims to grow the Black Mermaid Foundation across borders and garner partnerships with like-minded individuals and organizations focused on ocean conservation.
But the core goal remains empowering future generations. Ndhlovu emphasizes that it’s essentially about allowing children to explore and start crafting new narratives about the ocean.“Our work is to strengthen the advocacy of ocean facing communities, creating opportunities to not only dignify the lives of people living around these oceans, but to educate in a manner that connects the challenge of climate change, the health of our oceans and the security of the lands we currently inhabit,” she explains.
Ultimately, Ndhlovu hopes the ripple effects from her foundation lead to more Black divers out there, not only experiencing the joy of the ocean but also becoming advocates for it. “This work hopes to inspire curiosity, expand narratives, and create new dreams,” she says. “All of a sudden, life is not about the next thing. Life is just about the now.”