It’s the symbol of summer, and in the heat the ultimate respite. But the swimming pool, particularly the public kind, has anything but a frivolous place in SA’s history. Once segmented along colour lines, today municipal pools are at the mercy of drought, negligence and lack of funding.

Two local creatives, Writer Sam Woulidge and painter Willem Pretorius, have found divergent inspiration in their depths.

Chasing the blues

Woulidge writes: Public swimming pools have always filled me with dread. I have an early memory of an indoor heated swimming pool. There were children chasing one another, laughing loudly and splashing wildly. It smelt musty and there was a soggy chip floating near the stairs of the shallow end.

Public swimming pools are the pools of my swimming lessons where I was intimidated not only by the teachers but also by my competitive, confident peers. I learnt to swim, not because I loved it, but because I feared it.

Public swimming pools were where I swam in school galas. I never came first, or second or third. I was good, I just wasn’t good enough.

Which is how I have always felt in public swimming baths — those public spaces where I have to take off my clothes and I don’t feel thin enough, fit enough, pretty enough or strong enough.

But I love being in the water; I love the weightlessness I feel when cocooned in liquid.

Picture: 123RF/Andrey Armyago
Picture: 123RF/Andrey Armyago

I particularly like sea water. I like cold sea water. And I like it that not everyone does, because it is something that I do, that I love. I like it that my body can not only withstand the cold water, but that it responds so well to it.

I was reminded of this when I started swimming at the Sea Point Pavilion — a place that I had denied myself for so long. A place that I had admired from afar but would not venture into. This iconic part of the Atlantic seaboard, the Pavilion with its art deco entrance, palm tree fringes and four swimming pools of shimmering blue, right next to the sea. I felt I had no business being there, it being a public swimming pool. Public — thus by its very nature a place where my fears and inadequacies would have been open to inspection, to the gaze of others.

But a friend insisted I join her one cold winter morning. And so I did. And something happened to me as I passed through the metal turnstiles of the municipal pool, having paid the R25.30 entrance fee, when I stripped and entered the water that day wearing only a bathing costume and a swimming cap; my joy exceeded my fear. My body rigid with cold and gasping for breath, I swam my first length in the icy 11° salt water.

And then I simply carried on swimming. As I have done most days since then.

My body relaxes into the freezing water. One. Two. Breathe. One. Two Breathe. One. Two. Breathe. One length after another. My entire being flooded with endorphins and utter calm.

I breathe and glide through the water. Nothing else matters, only the breath and the water. The icy blue stills my anxiety and chases away my demons.

I like it when I am the only person in the pool. Me and the blue. One. Two. Breathe. I like the lane closest to the ocean. I like it when storms rage, when the sky is grey and the waves crash and spew foam over the railings and rain pelts down, and still I glide through the water one length after another. It feels like flight. I like that the seagulls stare at me quizzically as my hand reaches for the ledge, I like it that sometimes I share my lane with two squawking Egyptian geese.

And I love it that occasionally the crashing waves gift the pool small shells which lie like jewels at the tiled bottom. One. Two. Breathe.

Read more from Woulidge at

Running on empty

Willem Pretorius lives in the Free State town of Rosendal. From there he has made a study of the municipal pools in the hinterland.

All of them are drained.

"One was empty for winter," he says, "the rest abandoned." The result: post-apocalyptically beautiful pieces.

Contact Pretorius on