Johannesburg, the “City of Gold”, is widely described as the world’s only major metropolis that is not built alongside a significant body of water. The city does not enjoy the beachfronts of its coastal sisters, Durban and Cape Town (as one of the city’s great narrators, Ivan Vladislavic, observed, Johannesburg was built on reefs with no coral), and relentless development has decked its rivers in trash and driven minor spruits underground.
But while there may be few places to swim for Joburgers who cannot afford private swimming pools, the city’s 58 municipal swimming pools offer relief from the highveld’s debilitating summer heat.
Jane Nhlapo, 61, a former post office branch manager who now teaches Sunday school at the St Gabriel Apostolic Church in Tembisa on the East Rand, lounged under the shade of a palm tree at the Sydenham swimming pool, a public pool on the eastern edge of the city, in early December.
She had brought more than 30 of her Sunday school pupils, rollicking and raucous as they jumped in and out of the shallow end, for a day at the pool.
“This kind of facility should be in every location,” said Nhlapo as the children took a break to line up hungrily for their lunch packs, each comprising a hot dog slathered in tomato sauce, a serviette and an apple. “We should not lack this. Why us? Why is [Tembisa] different from other places?” she asked.
According to Nhlapo, there are no functioning swimming pools servicing Tembisa’s approximately 500 000 residents, which meant that she and the children had to travel more than 20km for the day’s outing. This was the first swim of the year for most of the children, but something that distressed Nhlapo more was that this lack of access is all too familiar.
“We grew up not knowing swimming pools,” said Nhlapo, who cannot swim and remains “scared of vast water”. She worries that the children she teaches, starved of opportunities to swim, will suffer similar fears later in life.
According to Nhlapo, the social ills facing Tembisa’s youth – crime and drugs in particular – are partly explained by children not having enough places to play.
Nestled 8kms west of Sydenham, at the intersection between Saxonwold, Parkview and Parktown North – some of Johannesburg’s most affluent suburbs – is the Zoo Lake swimming pool. Here, the sight of businessmen in their dull, button-up shirts, getting ready to swim laps during their lunch hour, contrasted with the kaleidoscope of swimsuits worn by another group of children who had travelled from a township for a swim.
Posh pools in posh areas
The grade 6 pupils from Ditawana Primary School in Orlando East, Soweto, had made the 20km journey to Zoo Lake for their end-of-year party, with their summer holidays set to begin the following day. One of the teachers chaperoning the children, Dijeno Oldjohn, 64, told New Frame they made the trip “because Zoo Lake is cleaner and has better facilities”.
Zoo Lake pool is also bigger and able to accommodate more swimmers than any of the pools in and around Soweto, which are “easily congested”, according to Oldjohn.
A glance at Google Maps shows that private, backyard pools are scattered throughout the posh suburbs surrounding Zoo Lake. One of these belongs to Mandy Walker, 46, a Parkhurst resident who had a very different take to Oldjohn’s.
Once married to a former Olympic swimmer, Walker prefers the “family friendly” atmosphere of public pools to her private pool – she is able to do her 40 laps while her daughter plays.
Speaking to New Frame at the Linden covered pool, Walker said that while she loves Zoo Lake’s “multicultural vibe”, which she said “feels Afropolitan”, she no longer feels safe there.
Peter Hoberg, 49, had received similar advice regarding safety at Zoo Lake, where he was swimming alongside the Ditawana students before returning to Germany after four weeks of travel in South Africa. According to the German, while the pool “could be better maintained”, he never felt like he “shouldn’t be here”.
Yeoville’s pool of sludge
The 2017/18 Quality of Life Survey conducted by the Gauteng City Region Observatory shows that residents in South Africa’s most populous province are more likely to be satisfied with their neighbourhoods if there are decent public spaces nearby.
However, a visit by New Frame to Yeoville’s public swimming pool, built in the art deco style, suggested that, unlike other suburban swimming pools, it offers little satisfaction to the surrounding working class neighbourhood.
Where Sydenham and Zoo Lake’s crystalline blue water had overflowed with happy children who had travelled from afar, the public pool in Yeoville, close to Sydenham, filled shin-deep with sludgy green water, was abandoned. Over the previous few weeks, neighbourhood children had been so desperate to escape the summer heat that they scaled the swimming pool’s high walls in unsuccessful attempts to sneak a swim. According to staff, a motor in the pump house was broken and the pool would need to be emptied and cleaned before it could be refilled.
The public pool in Malvern, which is also a working class neighbourhood, but on the southern edge of the city, suffered a similar malfunction.
The City’s director for sports and recreation, Siyanda Mnukwa, denied that the difference in the quality of public swimming pools reflects a class divide, saying that “pools are closed as and when there is a compelling need to close them, irrespective of the location [or] class”. When asked why pool closures are more frequent in working class neighbourhoods, he added that “the numbers of bathers in pools … also account for the breakages in elements of the pools”.
Ellis Park’s clear blue waters
Although Ellis Park, the jewel in Johannesburg’s slightly battered crown of public swimming pools, is only 3kms south of Yeoville, its glassy water and elite facilities are a world apart. For Bafana*, 28, who has been a lifeguard at Ellis Park for the past six summers, the city’s public pools are about more than the relief of a swim.
When he was 10, Bafana learnt to swim at the Diepkloof public pool in Soweto. A fast learner, it wasn’t long before he had developed into a speed merchant, specialising in the sport’s more rapid strokes, freestyle and butterfly, for the provincial swimming team. Along the way, he also picked up various qualifications in lifesaving.
In this way, Bafana told New Frame, Johannesburg’s pools opened up a livelihood for him. He supports his girlfriend and their infant son, with whom he lives in a backyard room in Orlando, Soweto, on the R10 300 he makes for each of the seven months he works as a lifeguard during the swimming season.
Ellis Park was a hive of activity around Bafana as he spoke because the Central Gauteng Aquatic School Championships were under way. The swimming pool complex, which includes an Olympic-sized competition pool, a 25m warm-up pool and a diving pool that is fenced off to the public, was filled with children and parents from across the province, some of them limbering up for their next race, others on their way to buy a snack.
Dodgy employment terms
But Bafana said there is more to Ellis Park than meets the eye, alleging that, while the facility is maintained to impeccable standards for the events and athletes it hosts, the municipality is employing the people who ensure swimmers’ safety, lifeguards such as Bafana, on precarious terms.
Bafana’s goal is to be permanently employed by the municipality, something that comes with a year-round salary and medical benefits, but he claimed the city has not opened any permanent lifeguard posts since 2007.
Mnukwa contended that the seasonal employment of lifeguards “is not a peculiar feature” in the city. He added, however, that the permanent employment of lifeguards “would have a snowballing effect for all municipalities”.
* Not his real name.