Why black men can't swim

At 2pm on Friday, hands on hearts, heads held high, the young lads and lasses of Team South Africa were to stand among the nations of sportsmen and women getting ready to represent their countries at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

What you will notice is that Team South Africa is largely white. In fact the swimming team of 25 men and women, who carry our hopes in their strong arms and agile legs, will be completely white.

But hold on. Before you scream and get hot under the collar about another quintessentially South African racial argument, read on. And if your name is Butana Komphela, don’t start beating your chest and yelling “I told you so” yet. And should Moss Mashishi, head of the South African Sports Confederation and Olympics Committee, manage to surmount the internet blackout in China and read this online through the polluting fog of Beijing, he can also relax. I am not about to attack him and his committee “of Indians and coloureds that knows nothing about transformation”.

Blaming others for why black people don’t swim is unfair. The blame lies with my mother. Yes, you heard right. Mrs Mabote snr, and many of her ilk, determined many years ago that today at the Beijing National Stadium, there would be no people of darker hue representing this country of 35-million black people in aquatic sport.

As a youngster, my mom, a hard-working labourer and a loving parent, forbade me from going to the local swimming pool. “If I ever catch you going to the pool, I will beat the hell out of you. And if you drown, I’ll kill you,” mom instructed.

To many darkies, drowning did not necessarily mean dying, it could also mean being overcome by water and imbibing a few gallons before being rescued.

And for years I obeyed her. It was not the possibility of dying and leaving my mom in sorrow that terrified me. It was just being caught and being beaten—probably by using a wet cloth on my limp body with all the neighbourhood girls watching—that scared the living daylights out of me.

Even sadder is that I was disallowed a rare privilege during the days when, thanks to apartheid, few black people had access to public pools. Dobsonville in Soweto had its own pool. Growing up there in the 1970s and 1980s was a relative luxury. Unlike other parts of Soweto, Dobsonville had it all: swimming pool, fully fledged cinema (not some dingy hall will black refuse bags as curtains), post office, football stadium, tennis and volleyball courts and even our own graveyards. If you were born in Dobsonville, you had no reason to leave Dobsonville for recreation. To rub in how special we were, Dobsonville was always electrified, unlike the rest of Soweto which only got lit up in the mid-1980s.

But my mom wasn’t bothered by any of this. Helping her was a legendary figure called Mbesha. Mbesha and his friends, from a notorious street in Dobsonville, were early-day Robin Hoods. Lurking on street corners, Mbesha and his cohorts would accost those leaving the pool and steal their clothes and whatever little money they had left. It would have been one thing to defy mom and go swimming behind her back, but the shame of losing my clothes to Mbesha, I was not willing to face. That would mean double punishment back home. And, Mr Komphela, as you can gather, neither my mom nor Mbesha were Indian or coloured.

The personnel at the swimming pool were not helpful either. The hordes of children who went—those whose mothers didn’t mind them drowning—would be ill-treated just to get five minutes in the 50x10m pool.

You would have to dump all your belongings in a smelly locker area before jumping in, with only a bottle top as your token signalling that you had something to retrieve later. More often than not, these dare­devils who were not afraid of drowning or scared of their mothers, lost their belongings. The less said about how literally dozens of kids would be allowed all at once into the pool—boys and girls at the same time—the better. There is a study to be made about the origin of the sexual crimes we experience today.

Years later, when I went to live in Cape Town, the darkies from Gugulethu and Langa didn’t advance my swimming ambitions either. On numerous trips to the beach everyone would be dressed to the nines and we would spend the whole afternoon drinking and eating on the concrete side of the beach. Nobody put a toe in the sea.

It was much later in life that I finally learned how to swim. A girl I badly wanted stood at one end of a pool and told me to swim to her “if you really want me”.

The rest is history. I can swim only a short distance under water (preferably with a girl on the other side) but I, and many others like me, am not Olympic material.

Rams Mabote is a former journalist and spin doctor who currently swims against the tide in the world of corporate banking. Occasionally he writes about golf for the Mail & Guardian

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