Sharne Jacobs at the skate park, Gauteng © Thom Pierce 2023
Sharne Jacobs is worried that the world will always stereotype skateboarders as a nuisance. It felt for a long time that the sport that changed her life would never be taken seriously in South Africa. That was until it was accepted into the Olympic Games and the public perception slowly started to shift.
At the age of 13, Sharne would go to skate parks to diligently practice a skill that she enjoyed, and that gave her an escape from the rest of the world. She was the only girl at the park and, after a while, the intimidation that she felt from the boys became too much and forced her away.
It wasn’t until her mid-twenties, that a friend invited her to try again and she rediscovered her passion for skateboarding. Even though thirteen years had passed, it still didn’t feel like a place for women and girls to thrive. Sharne realised the need for a safe space for girls to be able to learn together and committed herself to creating just that.
But skateboarding is a curious discipline that, rather than being lauded as a highly skilled craft, is all too often dismissed as a playground for bored teenagers.
The scrapes and slides of wood on concrete, the rattling of wheels, the ugly concrete arena, the tattoos, the wardrobe, and the graffiti that adorns the walls of many skate parks, all combine to give skating a bad reputation.
But, there are a variety of valuable life skills that can be learned at the skate park. Skateboarding is essentially a solo endeavour, the mastery of which can only be achieved through diligent practice, commitment and risk-taking. It teaches the learner to get back up and try again, even when it hurts. Patience, persistence and confidence are needed to slowly perfect technical skills, combining them into a series of finely crafted tricks.
It is also a highly social sport. The skate parks are home to many, a place for people to come together and learn, help, compete and share their experiences. It can be therapy for some, and a healthy outlet of energy for others.
“People have come from broken homes and places where they are not exposed to good energy and learning. Skating teaches you life lessons, it can be wholesome.”
These are all the aspects of skateboarding that Sharne loves, and all the positive experiences that she wants to pass on to other girls. So in 2015, she started Girl Skate South Africa, a safe space for girls to come and learn skateboarding whilst at the same time finding a community of like-minded people who want to practice a new skill, surrounded by support and encourangement. Up to 60 girls come to a session and they are now hosting lessons and events around the country.
“I just want to see people get the same enjoyment as I have. And do their best. It has helped me with my confidence and grown me as a person. I was super shy and unapproachable before.”
Sharne is also working to bring skating to other communities that could benefit from the experience of learning new skills. Together with Rare Bear and Beauty from Ashes she has built a small skate park at a community centre in the informal settlement of Kya Sands where poverty and unemployment have contributed heavily towards the disempowerment of the youth. The skate park provides them with a new focus and an empowering skill that also deepens a sense of hope that there is more out in the world for them.
It may take a while for skateboarding to shake off its bad reputation but, in the meantime, Sharne is giving young girls hope, confidence, and a new set of skills. That doesn’t sound like too much of a nuisance.
Written by Thom Pierce