Aquatic sports need suitable bodies of water - which were, and still are, in short supply in South Africa. The perception of 'sunny South Africa' belies the fact that most of the Highveld is over 1500m above sea level, where temperatures drop below freezing in winter, making outdoor pools being too cold for swimming for at least 6 months of the year. Today pools are again being built indoors - even schools have their indoor pools, to allow year-round sports activities like water polo. During the 1950's and 60's the South African government and local municipalities had a policy to build swimming pools, with many small dorpies having their facility. Unfortunately in the post-1994 era maintenance of swimming pools is not a priority, and many of these pools have become derelict.
Besides swimming pools, swimmers often used rivers, dams and the sea. During her visit in 1928, British swimmer Mercedes Gleitze swam in the Swartkops river near Port Elizabeth, The Buffalo in East London, the Modder in Bloemfontein, as well as Germiston Lake and Hartbeespoortdam. The Redhouse River Mile in Port Elizabeth (now swum in the Swartkops river, due to pollution) has been held since 1928, although the Buffalo River Mile in east London has not continued. In Cape Town aquatic carnivals were held in the harbour dry dock, from the old Cape Town Pier, and along the coast of False Bay from Muizenberg to Fish Hoek, for the Gentry Cup race. The most well known swim in South Africa is to/from/around Robben Island - while the world's largest open water race is the annual Midmar Dam Mile held in the Natal Midlands. Today open water swiming is an Olympic disciplie, and so there are many open water races held around the country.
Click here to see a live map of pools and other places where swimming history is made in southern Africa.
A wonderful blog article showing many of the early swimming places in Port Elizabeth
Worcester Municipal pool - when those mountains are covered in snow, the water would not be too inviting!
These can be divided up into a number of categories:
Private swimming pools. The first pools built in southern Africa, like the Camps Bay, followed the English model - indoor, heated, and privately owned. One such pool was the underground 25m pool owned by the Summit Club in Hillbrow - where Karen Muir trained while in the transvaal before her many overseas trips.
Municipal pools used for national events
Long Distance - Oceans, dams and rivers
Algoa Bay - Bell Buoy swim - Indian Ocean
Jeffreys Bay’s Marina Martinique- Indian Ocean
Durban - Dolfin Mile - Indian Ocean
Redhouse river Mile - Swartkops River, Port ELizabeth
Buffalo River, East London
Midmar Dam - Midmar Mile - Natal Midlands
Genrty Cup race - Fish Hoek - Indian Ocean
The iconic - but rather dilapidated - Arthur Nathan pool in Bloemfontein
A number of factor influence the swimming culture of any society. These include the social norms of the ruling class (who decide where to spend public money), the climate, and the type of places and facilities available to swim in.
Click here to read an article of swimming and culture.
de Jong diving centre - Pretoria
Pretoria University Architecture student Johan Gerhard Böhmer wrote the following about our swimming experiences:
Public swimming pools contain vernacular memorabilia and strong associations with childhood memories. Jeff Wiltse (2007:207) states that childhood memories, related to public swimming pools, are profoundly vivid compared to those of visits to schools or churches. A delicate relationship exists between water, spatiality and self-reflection.
As a public space it provides a social platform of interaction, recreation and self-reflection. The act of swimming adheres to public and private imagination. It provides a forum and a space where culture and dreams can be shaped. Wiltse confirms that swimming pools as public spaces generally foster a vibrant community life by countering the alienating aspects of modern life. It becomes an informal gathering space which does not place prejudice on people divided by economic classes and social differences.
The solitude of swimming renders the ritual a highly introspective act. Many personal acts are augmented while swimming. Breathing becomes more than regulatory; it gains sensual significance. The expansion of lungs and the movement of all the muscles while suspended in a semi-weightless meduim connects the corporeal with the cerebral. It is a dive into the imagination, an alternative world where movement is not restricted in terms of dimensionality.
Imagination is an integral part of swimming; entering a unique state between body and mind, rarely experienced outside a pool. Bailey believes that there exists a romantic notion of swimming, making it a deeply significant activity.
As a public ritual, it simultaneously celebrates intimacy and collective delight. Bodies carving through space in synchronous movements, recall perhaps the evolution of man and the nostalgia of aqueous beings. Swimming amalgamates images of three dimensional spatiality, transcending euclidian space, placing intimacy and communal recreation in realms outside physical space and time.
The availability of swimming facilities is linked to the cultural norms of a society. The moral norms of a society dictate how it views sports, how much resource a society devotes to sporting activities. In the early 1960's following the creation of South Africa as a republic, nationalistic fervor placed great emphasis was placed on sport and hence the building sports facilities including many Olympic size swimming pools throughout the land.
The period following the ANC takeover of most municipalities after 1994 has seen many of these pools closed and abandoned, while a few high-profile facilities, like Kings Park in Durban, have been upgraded.This reflects a change in societal norms as well as the competence of the current management.
Kings Park - International competition pool in Durban. It has been a venue for the annual FINA/Arena Swimming World Cup events in the past.
The climate in South Africa plays a big part in the history of swimming in the country. While the whole country enjoys excellent sunshine during the summer months, the great escarpment that covers most of interior of the country is located 5000 ft. above sea level, so that most of the country freezes in winter.
Natal - traditionally a powerhouse in South African swimming - benefits from a sub-tropical climate, and enjoys sunshine year-round with temperatures ranging from 16C during the winter months. Further west along the coast East London also has warm weather, and many of the greatest sportsmen of the country have come from the many excellent schools in the Border area. By Port Elizabeth, swimming is impossible during the winter months, and swimmers in the Eastern Province usually only started training by September.In the western Cape the cold Atlantic Ocean ensures cold weather in the winter.
The creation of swimming pools is a reflection of the skills of a society. It requires a high degree of engineering and management skill to create and maintain a swimming pool particularly an indoor, Olympic size facility. The social norms that underpin an aspiration for such facilities are usually matched by a societal ability to create it. The Romans built heated pools two thousand years ago, for purposes of cleanliness, relaxation and pleasure. When their facilities were taken over by other cultures, they soon fell into disrepair. History has repeated itself in South Africa.
Circumstances in the new South Africa have resulted in renewed participation by parents in school affair particularly finance. There was little incentive to develop school facilities while there was abundance of municipal facilities available, but in the post-1994 world of financially and technically corrupt municipal management, schools have had to become self-sufficient in satisfying their requirements for sports facilities. Today many South African schools have heated indoor swimming pools, and as an unintended consequence to greater societal participation in the facilities, water polo has experienced an explosive growth in school sports.
SACS School swimming pool - Cape town
Aside from institutional facilities, the 1990's saw a re-introduction of the private, commercial swimming pool. The Health and Racquet Club was accompany that built large gyms all over South Africa and all had a beautiful 25m pool right at the entrance! Unfortunately the idea of the pool was to attract customers- rather than provide pool time for the coaches of squads of competitive swimmers.
Unlike their British counterparts who have access to public pools, South African swimming coaches were always entrepreneurs who created their pools, through sheer necessity. . Swimming clubs some dating back to the 19th century were loosely associated with particular coaches, but the coach controlled his own pool, lest he be subject to inconsistencies of the swimming establishment. Clubs were creatures of statute, governed by and members of the South African Amateur Swimming Union, while coaches were businessmen, whose bread-and-butter money came from learn-to-swim programs, who moved their squads to wherever they could get the best deal on pool time, or even built their own pools. Learn-to-swim businesses operate in any suitable pool often home pools - of South Africa has an abundance.
Before swimming pools were built, people swam in rivers and the sea. South Africa's rivers are not really suitable for swimming, and there are few natural lakes. It does have a long coastline, but with few cities along the coast , and the greatest population density being greatest inland, around the Witwatersrand area. The coastline has created an opportunity for the development of surf lifesaving clubs, and South Africa has many excellent surf lifesavers, which are often also competitive swimmers. The presence of still water lifesaving clubs in all of the provinces reflects the need for such a service where people swim in rivers and dams.
Swimming pools probably came to South Africa as a by-product of British colonialization. The wife of a colonial secretary, Lady Anne is remembered for the pool at Kirstenbosch, named in her honour, where she was noted for her habit of bathing nude while on a picnic at the bath. As she was resident at the Cape for a short while, during the first occupation in 1898 -1802, the pool probably existed before she appropriated it for European-style usage.
The earliest mention of a swimming pool in South Africa comes from an article in the London Times - dated 1869 referring to a enclosed floating bath, located in Table Bay. This seems to have the usual construction for a swimming pool in many European countries, and amazingly it also seems to have survived the Great Storm of 1865, to which the article refers. The English author was complaining about the common practice of using Victorian "bathing machines" - a sort of small caravan that was pushed into water - from where a swimmer might slip into the water, fully covered in appropriate costume. A floating, enclosed pool could be used instead even in the sea, as in the Cape.
Swimming pools were usually set up as commercial enterprises. The British introduced their concept of commercial pools to southern Africa and there were soon such facilities available in most of the major centers. Of course these were mostly indoor pools, reflecting the culture of the Britons that built and maintained them, but later on the municipalities got involved, and we had large, outdoor town pools created in many towns throughout the country. This was before the 1960 resurgence in municipal pool building, which also coincided with the growth of the leisure industry worldwide.
Beautiful grounds of the Borrow Street pool in Bulawayo