It’s a mid-November morning and it’s already blazing hot. Our original plan was to go to the Orlando West swimming pool, but, many wrong turns later, we discover it’s empty.
“Everyone is at church,” a maintenance man informs us. “Try Power Park pool.”
It’s just off Chris Hani Road, he says, right near the cooling towers.
It’s closed when we arrive, but we’re told it gets busy with kids after midday.
It would appear that most of Soweto is at church.
The Power Park swimming pool is part of a sports complex that is also home to a canoe club, called the Soweto Canoe and Recreation Club. The club’s paddlers train on the nearby Orlando Dam, and with the Dabulamanzi Club in Emmarentia. The wetland around the dam is also popular with birdwatchers, and Raymond Rampolokeng – who is Soweto’s first BirdLife South Africa guide, and who I definitely have to write about – offers bird-watching experiences in the area through his Africa Bird Tours company.
The 20 laps team has time to kill, so we head to the cooling towers, which are a little further up the same road as the pool. The brightly painted towers are no longer in use, but they were once part of the coal-powered Orlando Power Station, which is now decommissioned. The power station was set up at the end of the Second World War and served Joburg for about 50 years. Now tourists bungee-jump off the towers.
Up close the towers are imposing. I watch a blonde girl get strapped in for her bungee-jump: her name is Kiki. I know this because an American man next to us keeps shouting her name. My neck hurts from looking up.
Kiki plummets head-first to the ground; her screams follow the rapid downwards trajectory of the cord. Half-way before hitting said ground, her body is yanked up in a series of violent bounces. Her screams lag a second behind each bounce, like subtitles that aren’t quite synced.
Kiki’s near-death spectacle has taken a toll on our necks, so we decide to sit down at a nearby eatery called Chaf Pozi. Because everyone is apparently at church the shisha nyama joint is quiet; we sit at a wooden table and talk about guns, addiction, and the difference between UK and US shoe sizes.
It’s midday so we head back to Power Park pool. The pool attendant was right: it’s gone from zero to 20 kids. As soon as we enter through the gate we’re made to feel welcome; the attendant insists that we don’t pay our entrance fee and that we just enjoy the pool.
A child bounces past. He’s wearing a torn Calvin Klein T-shirt and slippers, which get soaked as he stomp-runs through a massive puddle of water that’s leaked from the main pool pump. An old set of plastic lane dividers lie in a discarded heap in a corner. It’s scorching by now, and I seek shade under a thatched-roof structure.
Carine is 41, and she’s been a lifeguard at Power Park pool for six years. She’s been a swimming instructor since 2010, and she lives in Jabulani, but was born in Pimville. She tells me she’s happily married, and that she has a son who is nine.
“I love this job even though there’s no money,” she laughs. “I’m like a mama, looking after children at a creche. I enjoy shouting!”
It took two years for Carine to become a lifeguard, and there are challenges to the job: it’s hard to accommodate people with disabilities as the pool lacks the facilities, and drunk people are a near-constant issue (“drinking isn’t allowed at the pool; people still sneak it in”).
“Saving people from drowning happens all the time, and it’s both kids and adults – adults think they’re fine in the deep end but they’re not,” she adds, with a shrug.
Her co-lifeguard is Warren, who is 29. He’s been at Power Park pool for two years, and he’s been a lifeguard for seven years. Warren is from Florida, in Roodepoort, and he’s married with two girls. “I enjoy the job but I want to do more,” he tells me.
“I want to become a paramedic or Metro police officer. I love helping people; I’m not scared, I can handle a lot.”
He pauses, before his eyes narrow slightly and he looks into the distance. “I’ve experienced quite a few things.”
I approach a young man; he has a gold earring in one ear and his dark skin is contoured by muscles. He can’t speak any English, and initially I assume that he’s not South African. Our communication struggle is spotted by Tuli, a woman who volunteers to help out at the pool from time to time.
“His name is Tshidiso,” she says. I try write Tshidiso down in my notebook but it takes a few times to get the spelling right:
Teliso. Tspeso. Tumi gently takes the pen from my hand and writes: ‘Tshidiso’. She tells me he’s Sotho and that he went to school in Joburg but didn’t finish; Tshidiso works odd jobs in construction in the CBD and he comes to the pool every day – he learnt to swim here.
The fact that I can’t speak Sotho and I couldn’t spell his name makes me feel embarrassed.
Reflections on Power Park swimming pool, Soweto [words Alex Halligey]
We arrive at Power Park pool and no one is there yet, so we go away to sit under the bungee towers, and come back to find the pool full. A spreading puddle of water outside the admin office is being addressed with brooms by all the lifeguards: they are expecting us from our earlier visit, and are so welcoming. I get the feeling from our first encounter with the attendant to the moment we leave that all the pool staff ‘own’ the pool, rather than simply guarding it as officials answerable to an aquatic bureaucracy.
Big jokes and jolliness, us insisting we pay – the payment to be in the space. We’re welcomed as if into a home. And the pool on its fibrecrete-ringed plot, feels like a pool in a big private backyard – little bits of lawn; trees leaning over the wall; the two, big thatched pool shelters, one on the long side of the pool, one on the short but deep-end side.
The changing room is brick, small and smelling powerfully of a pile of fresh urinal cakes near the entrance. Three young girls are changing. Much excitement. The pool is clear, blue, slightly less than 25 metres and brilliant in the morning sun. As with nearly all of the pools we’ve been to, the bathers crowd the shallow end. Mainly children under 12, some older. Dive bombs coming from the side. The pool shelves deeply at the deep end.
It feels an easy 20 laps, and the morning’s journey to get to the swim – via the Orlando West swimming pool, with the bungee detour to wait for the Power Park pool to fill up – makes it an earned reward. Like a rock pool at the end of a hike. I think of the Orlando Dam on the other side of the towers and the canoeing club that rows there. These two bodies of water close together – the more open dam; the contained pool – and their different activities: swimming and boating.
I get out and change. Gail, Ang, Heather and Frank are all either deep in verbal conversations with the pool-goers or ones through their camera lenses. There’s a short, roofed bench opposite the thatched shelter, set back on the other side. I sit there to watch the scene and wait for the others to finish. The bench is like a bus stop for the pool. Waiting for the impulse to jump in, shaded to watch the swimmers in the water.
The Power Park swimming pool can be found on Sheffield Road, which is just off Chris Hani Road, close to Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital (which, incidentally, is the third largest hospital in the world). Power Park pool doesn’t come up on Google maps. I don’t know how much it costs to get in as the lifeguards insisted we didn’t pay an entrance fee.
Main header image: 2Summers