/ 18 November 2011

That sinking feeling

For citizens of a developing country, South Africans are remarkably accustomed to private services and special features that provide comfort, convenience and pleasure — such as swimming pools, which mostly belong to whites and a few blacks who don’t use them.

I like to count the houses with swimming pools during take-off and landing when I’m flying and I find it quite astonishing that not far from the airport, beneath the noise, soot and pale clouds that look like they drain all life below them, there are more houses with swimming pools than you would expect. I didn’t find that near Heathrow or JFK.

In suburban East London where I grew up almost every house had a swimming pool. When we moved there in 1995, my siblings and I became those black kids who would say, trying not to sound as if we were bragging (although we were), “ekhaya kukhw’ipool” (at our house we have a pool), and other black kids would ask how we knew how to swim. So convinced was I about my abilities to swim (an anomaly at that time among blacks) that I volunteered to swim in the first school gala of the year. The only other black child in the race was a dark-skinned Indian girl named Andrea, who was similar to me — small and ambitious.

The pool was 50m long and we were 10 years old. When the whistle blew, we all dived in. Long after the race was finished, when the white children were drying themselves, I was still in the pool, tired and gasping for air as I mouthed “help” to a blurry audience. Andrea was not far from me, swimming in circles. We were both rescued by a hefty girl in our grade.

Throughout school I never made it past an intermediate level at swimming and, after that, didn’t care much for it.

But recently a character in a drama series inspired me to start swimming again. I considered joining a private gym but a friend told me about the public pool at Zoo Lake.

I went on my own last Sunday. I stood at the top of some stairs for a moment and watched what looked like the pool scene from the movie Little Children. I took off my shorts, put on my swimming cap and goggles and stood at the edge of the diep kant (deep end) — a reminder of apartheid on the inside of the pool.

I thought of The Swimmer, a sculpture by Doreen Southwood of a young woman standing at the end of a diving board, deciding whether to jump or not, oblivious or aware of the plughole in the side of her buttocks that could either drown her anxiety or drown herself.

I wasn’t sure whether to jump in or dive. I dived in and lost my goggles. With nothing to hold on to, I trod water while looking for them. My lungs were weak and I was going down. I didn’t think about death. I was aware only of my anxiety. I had one shallow thought: I didn’t want to surface — violently wiping my face with both hands from my forehead to my chin — as though I didn’t know how to swim.