Pools and Places

A number of factor influence the sports culture of a 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. The develpment and maintenance of 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. The Pools and Places in South African aquatic sports history include not only swimming pools, but also dams, rivers and beaches

In the early 1960's following the establishment of the South African republic, nationalistic fervor placed great emphasis on sport and hence the building sports facilities, including many Olympic size swimming pools throughout the land. Each dorpie in the platteland had its own pool, although not Olympic size, and neither did every school get a pool as the community pool was used by local schools. 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, as countries in southern Africa devolve from High Functioning to third world and even failed states.

Click here to read an article of swimming and culture. 

Health, hygiene and bathing are fundamental elements of any high functioning society - and arguably so is competitive swimming at elite level. When the Roman empire began to contract, its bathhouses fell into ruin, because the society that replaced it were not high functioning. It took almost 1500 years of development for the English to build their own baths, when the first indoor swimming pool in England, St George's Baths was opened to the public in 1828. In 1976 the Portuguese abandoned a 500 year old colonial empire in Africa - complete with swimming pools and 10 meter diving platforms. Today most of those facilities also lie in ruins.

In 1443 Álvaro Fernandes, a Portuguese slaver, tried to capture some locals off the coast of Dakar in North Africa, who had approached their ship in canoes. When attacked, the locals 'dived like cormorants' to evade capture. In southern Africa there is no evidence of canoes or any such diving capabilities amongst the pre-European inhabitants. The first 'swimmers' in southern Africa were therefore most probably the Portuguese crew of Bartholomeu Diaz, who landed at Mossel Bay on 3 February 1488, where the Hartenbos river lagoon was most likely a good place for a bath. In Europe the Black Plague of the 1300's had created a perception that swimming 'opens the pores and allowed pestiferous vapours' to enter the body and cause immediate death, so those sailors were probably not very good swimmers. The early Dutch and French settlers at the Cape were most likely not inclined to spend a lot of time swimming, and only in the 19th century did swimming become an accepted activity in European society. In England Swimming emerged as a competitive recreational activity in the 1830's in England. This is what the British brought to southern Africa.

South Africa has a complicated geography, which has a direct bearing on the history of aquatic sports development in the country. The major features include the warm Indian Ocean (east coast) and cold Atlantic Ocean (west coast) , as well as a mountain range - known as the Escarpment - that is the edge of the central plateau that covers most of the interior of the country. It runs along the coast from the mouth of the Orange River to the Eastern Transvaal. The central plateau is divided between the semi-arid Karoo in the west to the wetter Highveld in the east of the country. The escarpment inhibits rainfall in the interior, so few major river exits on the plateau, while the coastal plane has numerous rivers, that often created deep gorges like the Bloukrans.

Between the Escarpment and the coast, from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth, lies the the parallel ranges of the Cape Fold Mountains. The rivers flowing down from the Escarpment created deep gorges along the coast - the Storms , Gouritz and Blouberg, while others like Touws, Knysna and Keurbooms created large estuaries and lagoons. The warm waters of the Indian Ocean creates enough rainfall to sustain the impenetrable Knysna forests, so travelers between the cities were forced to cross over the mountain ranges for a journey to the Eastern Cape. As a result few towns were developed along the Cape coast, and the resort nature of the coastal towns resulted small numbers of permanent residents. The great majority of coastal towns started as a mere collection of houses built far from any roads and used only during the holidays. North east beyond Port Elizabeth the coastal region between the Escarpment and the coast widens into the Transkei and then the Natal Midlands. The coast of Natal south of Durban is littered with resort towns like Amanzintoti, Margate and Scottborough,each with a tidal pool. They were popular destinations for Transvalers and Free Staters who traditionally came for their Christmas holidays.

The perception of 'sunny South Africa' belies the fact that most of the interior is over 1700m above sea level (Johannesburg - 1753m), where temperatures drop below freezing in winter, making unheated outdoor pools too cold for swimming for at least 6 months of the year. Suitable bodies of water for swimming were, and still are, in short supply. They can be divided between the natural - oceans, rivers and dams, and man-made swimming pools. Recreational swimming was done in tidal pools, which  were constructed in the rocks along the coast, predominantly near Cape Town and along the Natal south coast. Holidaymakers built them for safe swimming along the rugged coast, where swimming in the surf was dangerous. As swimming became a competitve sport, and before swimming pools were built, events were held along the coast of False Bay from Muizenberg to Fish Hoek for the Gentry Cup race, in Cape Town dry dock and off the harbour pier, seen below is the 1926 Gordons Swimming club 2 mile race.


The rugged coastline is ideal for building tidal swimming pools. Many of South Africa's iconic swimming baths were originally built at tidal pools. These include the Sea Point pool, that was built in 1887,  McArthur's Baths in Port Elizabeth, the Rachael Finalyson pool in Durban and the Orient baths in East London. Today there are many tidal pools along the coast of South Africa, like the Dalebrook pool in False Bay below.

In addition to the tidal pools, the early swimming pools built in South Africa were indoor structures. They were  often privately owned enterprises, like the Camps Bay beachfront pool below, built in 1904, and the Arthur Nathan pool of 1893 in Bloemfontein.

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. The most well known swim in South Africa is the Robben Island crossing - while the world's largest open water race is the Midmar Dam Mile held in the Natal Midlands.  Today open water swiming is an Olympic discipline, and so there are many open water races held around the country. 

As the country grew, platteland communities built pools in the centre of their towns, and later on as part of the town sports grounds, which were usually situated on the outskirts of each dorp. The municipalities soon began building pools as well, like the the saltwater pool at Humewood beach in Port Elizabeth. Further afield, the British in Rhodesia built pools in their town as at the schools, while the Portuguese added pools to their town and mining villages. In German South West Africa, which came under South African control after 1919, there were few swimming pools outside of the capital Windhoek. 

A typical South African dorp swembad is the unheated Worcester Municipal pool below, complete with diving boards - when those mountains are covered in snow, the water would not be too inviting! See the map for the location of the swimming pools.

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 in each town. Unfortunately in the post-1994 era maintenance of swimming pools is not a priority, and many of these pools have become derelict dead pools.

In the post-isolation era the landscape has changed considerably. Between 2002 and 2007 FINA used the new King's Park pool in Durban to host FINA World Cup events (below), but since then many swimming pools have been also abandoned by the ANC controlled municipalities; private clubs like Virgin Active have built 25m indoor pools at their numerous health clubs throughout the country; state and private schools have developed their own facilities to accomodate the massive new interest in water polo as a team sport, and new municipal pools have been built in ''previously disadvantaged communities", where they are mostly ignored and unused. New open water races have proliferated in dams around the country, to add to the venerable Redhouse River Mile and the famous Midmar Mile

The spaces - Pools and Places - required for aquatic sports can be divided into various categories - Public and Pivate, natural and man-made, as well as by the requirements of each sporting discipline. Diving requires boards over a deep pool, while swimming races can held in almost any body of water - Rhodesians swam races across Lake Kariba, despite the crocodiles! Despite the mismanagement of botht he sports and their facilities in Southern Africa today, aquatic sports continue to thrive in all areas. FOllow the links to the different Places.

Public Pools are built and maintained by local authorities - called Municipalities - who make them available for coaching and galas at a cost. Follow the links to municipal swimming pools located in the traditional swimming provinces.


Western Province Transvaal
Eastern Province Eastern Transvaal
Border Western Transvaal
Natal Noord Transvaal
Orange Free State South West Africa
Griqualand West Rhodesia
  Angola    and    Mozambique








Sea Point - Cape Town Karen Muir Pool - Kimberley
Newlands - Cape Town Arthur Nathan - Bloemfontein
Long Street - Cape Town Stadium Pool - Bloemfontein
Newton Park - Port Elizabeth Ellis Park - Johannesburg
Orient Baths - East London Hillcrest - Pretoria
Joan Harrison Pools - East London St Georges Park - Port Elizabeth
Rachael Finlayson Beach Baths - Durban Les Brown - Salisbury
Kings Park - Durban Barrow Street Baths - Bulawayo









Long Distance - Oceans, dams and rivers

Langebaan - Atlantic Ocean

Robben Island - Atlantic Ocean

False Bay - Indian Ocean

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






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.






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

The unheated Worcester Municipal pool,complete with diving boards - when those mountains are covered in snow, the water would not be too inviting!

The unheated Worcester Municipal pool,complete with diving boards - when those mountains are covered in snow, the water would not be too inviting!

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