It’s an unbearably hot November afternoon. A sign at the entrance of the Brixton swimming pool reads: NO DRUGS NO WEAPONS NO HOOKAHS NO DOGS. In the parking lot, a group of men laugh and shout next to a tow truck, their bare feet periodically knock against empty quarts of beer, creating a clang of glass against tar.
Brixton has always been a bit rough: according to The Heritage Portal, in the late 1800s – before it became a blue-collar, residential area – Brixton was synonymous with abattoirs. But, despite always being a white, working class suburb, in the 1980s it was one of the first areas to become multiracial. Brixton is home to a cemetery – where Randlords, indentured Chinese labourers, and Cornish miners are buried, as well as a Hindu crematorium on its western side, which, according to The Heritage Portal’s Kathy Munro, is ‘guarded by vicious dogs’.
However, pockets of Brixton have become more inviting to young, middle-class professionals (a colleague recently went to a popular coffee shop in the area, and commented: “There were top-knots everywhere!”). Brixton has a number of beautiful, old houses with pressed ceilings and wooden floors, and it’s also been popularised by Die Antwoord, who filmed one of their music videos here (because poverty is ZEF). And yet, it’s still mostly a poor neighbourhood that’s been left to its own devices.
The first thing I notice when I enter the Brixton swimming pool is a cluster of poor whites, sitting near the pool’s edge. One of the kids has a ratty, pink bath towel wrapped around her. I want to approach the adults but I don’t. Even though we have the same colour skin, there’s an obvious, yet unspoken, class divide between us; they know it and I know it. This is the first time during the #20laps project that I’ve felt like an intruder.
The water is blue blue blue – it surprises me because the building facilities have peeling paint and cracked windows, yet the pool itself is sparkling. It’s packed with teenagers; adolescent black bodies, their skins darkened by the sun, spill over from the water to the slightly overgrown grassy area. Once again, like most of the pools we’ve visited, the majority of the people in the water are in the shallow end; some of them seem to be coupled, arms round each other and hands wondering below.
A boy of about five or six runs up to one of the lifeguards and notifies him, in the most concerned of little voices, that he’s lost his shoelaces. A boombox plays gangster rap; tinny profanities vibrate through its speakers. A bunch of young Muslim guys, white taqiyahs covering their skulls, see who can splash each other the most. Their muscled arms crash down on the water’s surface; a playful, yet powerful, display of testosterone.
Hogan is 37 and he’s been a lifeguard for 14 years. He’s from Westbury, one of Joburg’s ganglands. He tells me that he was a competitive swimmer at school, and he swam for a team called the Blue Fins.
“When I trained for the team I loved seeing the lifeguards – the guys in red and yellow, they inspired me. I think it was because of their stature and authority, and that they saved people’s lives.
“Brixton was originally a whites-only pool, but now there are Nigerians, Somalians, Pakistanis; it’s now multiracial. Some of the white people come from Vrededorp and Fietas. People have changed to the conditions.”
I ask him a question I like to ask all the lifeguards: “Have you had to save many lives?” I always know the answer, but it makes their smiles widen and their chests puff out.
“I just saved a boy from drowning, like 10 minutes ago!” he beams. “Lots of people can’t swim. But there are a few regulars who come to the pool, who can swim.”
Reflections on Brixton swimming pool [words Alex Halligey]
Burnt orange paint and what looks like the original signage, ‘Municipal Swimming Pool’, in Art Deco font to match the building’s Deco lines. On Google maps it comes up as ‘Municipal Swimming Pool’, as if it was the only one in the city. The change room is roomy. A long, wide, open-air corridor bordered by a cloakroom on the right and a room of benches arranged in squares on the left, presumably for communal changing. Team changing. There’s a sink bracket with no sink under a mirror. Right to the cubicles and left to the showers and toilets. Knee-level foot showers with powerful sprays as well as normal showers. I start to put my contact lenses in front of the mirror and a gust of wind blows the first one away. Not to be found, I exit with skewed vision – a very blurry right-eye view and a crisp left.
The pool is a 25m; deep, deep end; worn but maintained but well-used. Unlike all the other pools where children from six to 12 have pre-dominated, this one is a pool for teenagers. Romancing, hanging, showing off, just bobbing. A more charged energy. A feeling of a collection of strong adult bodies.
The water is icy. I ask the head lifeguard [Superintendent] why as we leave, and she says the pool has a leak, so each day she has to top it up. In the sharp shelve to the deep end, there’s silt or algae, not a lot, but the feeling of debris adrift on the bed of the pool. And a grille too, in the floor of the deep end, for filtration no doubt, but it does give me the underwater creeps – where does it go to? Imagine getting drawn into it. The pool, like the change room, feels open, exposed somehow, more so than the other pools we’ve been to, which all had a sense of containment. It could be the blustery day and the big clouds that muscle their way over the sun and back off again.
As we leave, two women arrive with a cluster of children under five. They all run at us, hugging our legs. The not-teenagers of the teenage pool.
Jade is 35 and is the Superintendent of the pool. She’s more than happy to talk to me, but only in the shade (“I forgot my sunblock today!”). We chat for quite some time (she does most of the chatting while I listen). Jade is originally from Lenasia, and before coming to Brixton she was posted as a lifeguard at Linden. She proudly tells me she’s been a lifeguard since the First of September, 2002.
“After high school I couldn’t find a job, but I could swim. My mother encouraged me to become a lifeguard, so I trained and once I was 21, I became a seasonal lifeguard, but I’m permanent now.
“I was born to swim, destined to teach – my dream is to run my own swimming school. I know I could make it a success.
“I stay in Soweto; I moved there to be with my man. I’m waiting to get married. Before I met my boyfriend I was just biding my time, but I decided that I needed to make myself happy. So I moved to Soweto to be with him. I’m also closer to my mom, who lives in Lens [Lenasia]. Just being in the same room as my man makes me happy; he has a heart of gold. He’s had a hard life, but he’s turned out to be a guy with a sensitive heart. He came out very much OK; he cooks and cleans. I’m very lazy! We’ve been together for over four years.
“We just need to save up so we can get married; I’d like to be Mrs Mofokeng,” she laughs.
“I wouldn’t want to give up this job; it’s the best in the world. I love that the pool is so racially mixed. But seeing how things are now in the country, it’s a different ballgame.”
“I don’t know how to say this,” she adds. “But let me be honest with you… pre-1994 you had people taking the money, but not all the money. White people have always been used to getting a certain level of service; now there’s just non-service, for everyone. I can have the best water, it’s blue, but the state of the facility itself… the place isn’t valued, no one cares anymore. It all comes down to money: it’s a mindset thing; it’s a pocket thing.”
The Brixton municipal swimming pool, High Street (corner Kew and Ingelby streets), Brixton. The pool is 25m, but not suitable for lane swimming; there is also a children’s splash pool. R9 per adult, R6 for kids.
*All images by Gail Scott Wilson