Inspirational Woman: Zandile Ndhlovu | PADI Instructor & Founder, The Black Mermaid Foundation

Zandile Ndhlovu

Zandile Ndhlovu is PADI Freediving Instructor, PADI Mermaid and the founder of The Black Mermaid Foundation, which brings children from ocean-facing communities into contact with the ocean with the aim of combatting negative cultural narratives about Black people and their relationship with the sea.

Being the first Black African PADI Instructor in South Africa, she is determined to share her passion for the ocean with the world.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

My name is Zandile Ndhlovu, I am a Freediving Instructor, South Africa’s first Black Female Freediving Instructor. I am also the founder of The Black Mermaid Foundation. Perhaps a short summary of my background is that I grew up in Soweto, a landlocked area, and my first time seeing beneath the surface of the water was in 2016, I was mesmerised and knew that this is where I wanted to be, and as the years went by, understood how my passion had met my purpose, which is the current work in the foundation. I also work in front of and behind the camera, always looking to expand the story.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career? What led you to becoming a PADI instructor?

No I didn’t! I studied Biochemistry, then went into sales, and from a challenging corporate career, went to study Diversity and Inclusion, and this became a passionate space when I found language to help other organisations name the challenges they were facing, and so helping them to become more diverse and inclusive. Becoming an instructor took me by surprise too! I had gone snorkelling for the first time in 2016, when I got home I signed up for my Scuba certifications, open water, advanced, deep, everything! I absolutely loved being in the water and exploring while breathing underwater but never felt the call to be an instructor, it was when I went on a Freediving course with a PADI instructor in that was in Sodwana in 2019 that everything changed for me, from that first moment in the pool, and then when we went to the sea was euphoric moments of knowing that this is where I wanted to be, that this is where I wanted to create change, create access and ultimately, help as many people feel the incredible world that the ocean is… and so I went the whole zero to hero journey when I qualified as an instructor, I just knew my life as I had lived it was about to change and so it did.

Tell us more about The Black Mermaid Foundation, the mission behind it and what inspired you to set it up

The Black mermaid Foundation is an organisation that is working to create diverse representation in ocean spaces. My inspiration to set it up was just after I had qualified as an instructor, the realisation that I had always been the only Black person on the boat as a guest, and so the knowing that fundamentally, something was wrong, change was needed. In this change, was knowing that the kids are the future, and if I can work to change the narrative in their little bodies, they would grow up to see the sea differently, in how we care for it, how we protect it, and the narratives we hold around it, and in relation to our bodies. The idea is to create access to ocean spaces, recognising that proximity doesn’t equate to access, but also to expand the narratives that we grow up with around water, internally in our homes, and externally – like how Black people don’t swim – the danger of a single story. And so, we take kids out from a township on snorkel excursions, work to expand the narrative, and play and find a home, together.

Have you faced any challenges along the way?

Yes of course, on both ends, in becoming a Freediving Instructor, the deeper I went was the challenge to face my own fears based on the stories that lived in my body. I was 28 years old when I first went out snorkelling, with no idea of how the mask and snorkel even worked, and so from this in 2016 to 2020 qualifying as a Freediving Instructor, that was the internal struggle. The external was the normalised narratives in Ocean spaces that weren’t inclusive and were prejudiced even racist, and so, the work to continue on the journey, choosing to not assimilate nor to exist primarily through the lens of proximity to whiteness, but to embrace the fullness of where I come from, and in this, making space for more people that look like me, to find home here too. And in the foundation, I would definitely say it would be the finances, the foundation is self-funded and so continuously working to ensure we can run as many excursions as possible.

What have been your biggest career highlights to date?

There have been many incredible moments, when we reached 100 kids that had been on snorkel excursions, received the Charlotte Maxeke Award for Excellence in Environment and Conservation, received the TorchBearer Award from PADI, being listed in the Global Top 100 Most Influential People of African Descent in line with the United Nations International Decade for people of African Descent, and making my first film that I wrote and was the Director on for an International Streaming Platform.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?

I would say choosing truth over comfort. Speaking truth and continuously advocating for diverse representation in all Ocean spaces, and the importance of this shift.

How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee?

I think it’s very important, back when I was in corporate, I had an incredible mentor, and so feel, where possible, access to mentorship helps you to expand your views but also helps you have a greater floor to form ideas and play tennis with said ideas.

If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self, what would it be?

You are perfect just as you are, it’s okay to not fit in.

What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?

Expanding the foundation to have hubs all across the coast of South Africa, and then expanding into the continent. Creating a hive of expansion around the world’s waters and its people. And my next challenge, I’m not sure, I find myself continuously wanting to expand the story, which is a powerful tool for change, and so to challenge myself to dream bigger while being present to the gift that is continuously unfolding before me, also known as life.

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