It looks like the whole of Joburg has come to Zoo Lake. It’s an uncharacteristically sweltering spring day; there’s boating and braaiing, and the Boules Club is throbbing. I’m not quite sure where the Zoo Lake swimming pool is, so I stop to ask a very busy car guard. “It’s on the other side, mfethu,” he responds. Fair enough, I look like a small boy with my camo cap and sunglasses. Cars snake, engines groan, people hoot. I finally manage to find a spot. It’s a glorious day, and the entrance to the pool is glorious in equal measure: it’s grand and colonial and quondam. I pay my nine ront and enter.
There’s a reverb in the air, which is coming from the Boules Club across the road. The perfectly square pool is pumping. I scan the scene: bare-chested men with star tattoos and gold teeth posture against blue and white pillars, while kids splash in the shallow end. There’s a braai happening in the corner, and people, obscured by billowing smoke, are lounging in camping chairs devouring chops. A man is selling ice cream; there’s a young couple in the water, taking selfies of each other. My eyes land on a set of familiar faces, sitting on the grass: expat couple John and Louise. There’s no running water in Illovo, they say, so they decided to come to the pool. “People say it’s nice,” says Louise. “John’s a good swimmer, I’m shit,” she adds.
My father, who’s now in his seventies and can swim like a normal person, used to frequent the Zoo Lake swimming pool when he was a boy. It was “all-white in those days”, he says, and he’d often walk to the pool from where he lived in Parkhurst – long before its craft-coffee-shop proliferation. He remembers people would race each other in the pool, and that he’d have to ball up his clothes and leave them on the grass because there was nowhere to put them.
My partner’s 80-year-old mother remembers, as a child, that men would forget small change in their bathing-suit pants (“Yes, they wore bathing suits in those days!”), and she and her friends would wait for everyone to leave, then dive for the coins at the bottom.
Post-apartheid, the pool was left neglected for a long time, but its old-world pillars have been given a lick of paint and its tiles a much-needed refurbish, thanks entirely to fundraising done by a water polo club, who use the pool for training.
I’m told that on weekday mornings, when the pool is quiet and mostly people-less, Muslim women swim here in their burkinis.
I walk over to two yellow-shirted people. They’re the lifeguards and their names are Nozipho and Thato; as usual, they don’t really want to chat, and they think I’m ‘from the newspaper’. Once again, I have to reassure them I’m not ‘from the newspaper’. Nozipho warms up to me, but Thato isn’t at all convinced. While Thato is eyeing me out, Nozipho tells me that she’s 32, and she’s been a lifeguard for 13 years; she’s from Durban and started out as a beach lifeguard (and living the dream, if you recall the ambitions of Bez Valley pool’s lifeguard, Thando). “I had no work experience, and I swam since I was small, so I thought being a lifeguard would be good. I love working with people, and working in an open space,” says Nozipho. “One or two people a year come close to drowning, so they need us. In winter the pool is closed but we have to train; in summer we’re very, very busy. I stay in Alex, and catch a taxi to get here every day.”
By now Thato is a little more relaxed, and I discover that he’s 24, and new-ish to being a lifeguard – his first season was in 2012 and he’s from Soweto. “The municipality told me to come to Zoo Lake to get a job. It’s not a difficult job. I like working here. I know CPR. It’s a nice place,” says Thato. And that’s all I get out of him. Nozipho lets Gail take a photo of her, but Thato refuses. I don’t blame him, though – I tell Gail that if some random came up to me and asked to take a photo, I’d say no.
I spot a guy with sunglasses in a red EFF shirt, sitting under the shade of the bleachers with a woman and three small kids. His name is Vusumza. I struggle to hear the spelling with the noise of people and splashing and thumping of not-so distant Boules bass, and I feel self-conscious of never having heard the name ‘Vusumza’ before. I ask him if I can talk to him, and I tell him about the #20laps project. He looks at me as if I’m mad. “We come from Kempton Park,” he tells me. “We thought maybe it’s not so busy.” I see that he’s reading a book about the life and times of PAC founder Robert Sobukwe. “Unusual, for a poolside read,” I remark. I don’t know why I said that. I often get nervous talking to random people, and I have to force myself to strike up conversations with a project like this. He looks at me like I’m mad again. “I want to know more about the history of black liberation,” he says. I thank him for chatting and abort. Gail takes a family snap.
Reflections on Zoo Lake swimming pool [words Alex Halligey]
The oldness of the main building. A stately elegance to it. Inside the changing rooms the polished concrete and wooden doors, all original, or close enough to, and beautifully maintained. I remember a friend telling me about the polo team raising money for upkeep of this, their resident pool. The age of the structure, the red cement, the smell of it reminding me of buildings from school. Relics of a mining magnates’ Johannesburg.
The little, tiled, rectangular well you step down into between the changing room and the stands, a water catchment for dripping bathers.
Everyone in the pool, adults and children are all spread out in the shallow end, the rest of the pool clear, blue, free. I dive, after some hesitation as to whether to just climb in or not, and which spot to avoid hitting people if I do dive. Cold water, refreshing for the hot day. An early-season pool. Tiles. Clear lane lines. At one point when I stop in the shallow end and before starting my next lap, a woman walks with deliberation through the water to the side wall as a man just in front of her does a handstand, his body immersed, his legs making a slow V through the air.
I keep thinking of the polo team. How beautifully maintained everything about the pool is. Is the pool square for water polo or did the team pick this as their pool because it’s square?
In the middle of my swim I look up towards Westcliff Ridge. It looks dry and dusty. Another early-season pool marker. Later, out of the water, I can see more of the ridge, and with its dense trees it is actually quite green. More old mining Joburg grand elegance. The pool gives you the feeling of being on someone’s estate. The Houghton accessible for everyone at R9 a shot.
I lie on the paving between the pool’s edge and the unshaded side of the grandstand, warming up, chilled from the swim. I see two brothers, a serious older one and a smiley little one; the little one playing, then struggling to get out, then helped by the older. I see the little one in the changing room later, still smiling. At the poolside I think: so many people and ages and ways of getting in and out and being in and moving through the water.
Across from Vusumza is Stephanie, 26, who won’t tell me where she works, but who lives in Illovo. She’s in a bikini and soaking up the rays, and sitting next to Louise and John. I assume that because she’s white and also from Illovo that she’s with them, but no, my assumptions are incorrect. She’s heard of my blog; she saw something on her feed the other day. I ask her if I can mention her on the blog. “Ag, ja, what the hell,” she replies. She works in Parkview, and has been to the Zoo Lake swimming pool three times. “I’m from Cape Town originally, but moved up here for work in January. I love Joburg; I don’t miss Cape Town,” she tells me. I ask her why she likes Joburg. “There’s a, how should I put it? A better… mix here. It’s not as segregated as Cape Town. I know segregation obviously still happens in Joburg, it’s just not as hectic here. I love public spaces; I love the energy and vibe, so that’s why I come here. Some people would be terrified though. I need sun in my life, and there’s no pool at my complex. Jissus that doof-doof from the Boules Club is horrific.”
But there’s nothing to be scared of… except maybe, striking up conversations with complete strangers.
The Zoo Lake swimming pool, Cnr Prince of Wales and Lower Park Drive, Parkwood. R9 entrance for adults, R6 for kids. The pool is perfectly square (30mx30m), and there is no lane swimming but there’s regular water polo – see here for more information.
*Top image: Gail Scott Wilson