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Soweto swimming school fights stereotypes about black people and water

The outside of Soweto Swim School in Soweto Swim School, in 4350 Ballenden St, Orlando East. Picture: Cebisile Mbonani
The outside of Soweto Swim School, 4350 Ballenden St, Orlando East. Picture: Cebisile Mbonani

By Cebisile Mbonani

Just around the corner from the famous Orlando Stadium is a home that looks like an average Soweto home, except for a sign at the top of one of the buildings which reads, “Soweto Swim School.

The house is painted grey and cream, but the door is a bright red that stands out even from afar. As you enter through the red door, there is a passageway. On the right of the passageway is a family home, and on the left is another home with a glass door filled with a mist. Behind the foggy glass door is a heated swimming pool with swimmers and their coaches, and once you open the glass door, you see a wall written with the same words from outside, "Soweto Swim School."

Soweto Swim School is a swimming school launched in 2019 by a husband and wife, Tumi and Moses Masekela. The school provides affordable swimming lessons for adults and children across Soweto.

From marketing guru to swimming school founder

The idea came about when Masekela was living in Australia. When she was in Australia, she learned how to swim for the first time. "I needed to learn things that I wouldn't have access to learn at home, and swimming was on that list, so when I was in Australia, I learned how to swim for the first time," said Masekela

When Masekela returned to South Africa in 1997, it increasingly concerned her that the township residents didn't have basic skills like swimming lessons.

"Why isn't it like this in democratic South Africa? Our children in the township are still struggling, not just with education, but struggling to have facilities in their schools. There are no proper fields." said Masekela, who works in marketing.

At the time she and her family stayed in a suburban area outside Soweto, she could not understand why the children in the township could not have the same opportunities that her's had with activities like ballet classes, music classes, swimming classes, and hockey. There was nothing like that in the township. "We can't just be asking questions when we can do something, even if it is just starting small."

In 2013, they registered a swimming school called Soweto Swim School and relocated back to Soweto.

Initially, the Masekelas looked for funding and space to build the school, but they were unsuccessful. They wanted to collaborate with the South Africa Department of Education, but that was also unsuccessful.

The school was finally opened in 2019 in the backyard of the home Masekela had grown up in. They used their life savings to build the Soweto swimming school. Tumi used her marketing background to spread the word about their school. She used social media, community WhatsApp groups, flyers, and local TV and radio stations to reach parents across Soweto.

Before the Soweto Swimming School, Tumi Matlala (40) used to do weekly round trips of about 30km to take her children to swimming classes in Ormonde, South of Johannesburg. Now they have a swimming school just five minutes from her home, in Orlando. "My children need to learn how to swim. The school is a great addition to the community," said Matlala

Swimming is a basic skill, not a privilege.

"The swimming school is located in a township where most children come from grant-dependent households," said Masekela, "but we have made it our mission that those children who cannot afford the R350 lesson can still come for swimming lessons on the condition that they're serious with their academics at school."

The Masekelas said it was hard to find a professional swimming instructor. After a long search, they found Malefane Mohapi through a referral.

Mohapi learned how to swim at a public swimming school and decided to be a coach after hearing about a couple from his church whose child died from drowning. The couple had bought a house in Bryanston, Johannesburg, with a swimming pool, their child had drowned no one could save the child. After hearing the news, Mohapi decided he would get his qualification and make it his mission to teach children in the township how to swim.

"I was so sad when I heard that a child drowned and no one could save the child. I made a vow that no black child should die this way while I have the skills," said Mohapi

He said the kids that came with no experience are now pros in the pool. "Most of the kids I taught how to swim are now pros in the water, and I am sure they would save a person if someone were to drown," said Mohapi. The school is currently preparing a group of kids to compete in swimming galas.

The school also caters for adults

"Swimming is something I didn't learn to do because I didn't have access to a swimming pool," said Maite Modika, a 33-year-old from Meadowlands in Soweto. Modika started her swimming lessons in 2021. When she began her swimming classes with Soweto Swimming School, she was scared, "I have a fear of water, and I am still working on it. Swimming is a life skill. It's not even a privilege. It is a basic life skill that everyone should have access to," said Modika.

Twenty-six-year-old, Thandeka Mentor, travels from Protea Glen township which is almost 30 km away to her lessons by public transport. The school is accessible to those using public transport because most taxis pass by this area, said Mentor. "Swimming is an opportunity that was not presented to me when I was young. I feel like I am too old to do it now, but it is a basic skill I need to learn."

The vision is more significant

Soweto Swimming Pool aims to make swimming a dominant sport in Soweto. "My dream is to have a swimming team from Soweto go to the Olympics one day. It is not going to happen out of the blue. We will need resources, time, investment, and support." said Masekala.

Tumi Masekela said the school is their way of giving back to the community. “The money we make does not even feed our family, but it helps pay the coaches and ensure this place is still a world-class swimming pool.”


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