A number of factors 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 - for aquatic sports. The location, construction and maintenance of facilities is linked to the cultural norms of a society, while the moral norms of a society dictate how it views sports and how much of the communal resource a society devotes to sporting activities. In southern Africa these norms were expressed by the Europeans who introduced aquatic sports in the oceans and their beaches, constructed tidal pools, the rivers and dams - and later in swimming pools. Natal benefits from a warm climate - hence it has traditionally been able to challenge the far greater population of the Transvaal for dominance in South African aquatic sports. The European influence extended to the other colonial societies around South Africa.

Click here to read an article of swimming and culture. 

The earliest swimming pools in South Africa were probably no more than tidal pools, built into the rocks along the beaches around the Cape peninsula, as the Europeans created recreational facilities for their own use. They even flooded dry dock in Cape Town harbour was used for aquatic carnivals. Appropriate dams, rivers, beaches and later - indoor swimming pools - were used for aquatic sports, until outdoor pools became the norm throughout the country. The early pools in South Africa were indoor covered structrures, such as commonly found in England, while Afrikaner culture favoured outdoor pools. 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.

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 Finlayson 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.


Early swimming pools built in South Africa were indoor structures, following the English design. 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 marathon swiming is an Olympic event, 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 accommodate 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


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.

Pools and Places in provinces

The spaces - Pools and Places - required for aquatic sports can be divided into various categories - Public and Private, 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, disregarding the threat posed by crocodiles! Despite the mismanagement of both the sports, and their facilities in Southern Africa today, aquatic sports continue to thrive in all areas. 

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