Walking on water

2012-04-21 14:03

‘When I was a child, they said white people were good swimmers because they came from the ocean. I honestly believed it cos when we went to the beach, I’d see these guys out there floating on the water. I thought the sea was giving birth to them.”

Sihle Xaba is talking to me over the phone from South Beach, Durban, where he’s on lifeguard duty. Raised in the township of Lamontville, the 35-year-old national life-saving and bodyboarding star is now also a film star, with a major lead role as Mandla in Otelo Burning.

“Back then, before you could set foot in the water, they would throw a can in the sea and wait for it to come back. If it didn’t come back, then you weren’t allowed to swim because the sea would take you,” he says with a touch of indignation.

In the course of her research, Otelo director Sara Blecher says she heard similar tales. “Of course the swimming thing has to do mostly with access, but what came out of our workshops was that many Zulu people grew up being told that there were snakes that lived beneath the water.”

The award-winning journalist met Xaba while she was out at sea waiting for a wave she wasn’t going to catch.

“I’m a good swimmer, so I used to pretend I was a good boarder too. But I’d get to the top of the wave – and the waves get really, really big in KZN – and I’d look down, completely terrified, and retreat to the back line. Sihle used to watch me. We became friends.

One day he saw me on top and he pulled my board on to the wave . . . When you actually ride a wave, that’s it, you’re hooked.”

It was Xaba who told her about the pool in Lamontville that was to become central to Otelo. The film tells the story of the young men who grow up swimming in it against the backdrop of the Inkatha-ANC violence of the late 80s.

“You could basically see the pool from my house – well, my uncle and aunt’s house. I was raised by my mum. My dad was never around. But my mum had to go away to work so I stayed with them.”

I ask about his dad. “It’s a whole complicated story – the usual one. You get someone pregnant and you say it’s not my child. He came to his senses when I was six and came to visit. My mum explained, ‘That’s your father’.”

I ask him what happened next. “A few months later he was killed. All I know is he was murdered in Matatiele.”

A young Xaba used to play soccer with his friends in the sweltering humidity of Lamontville and they’d head to the pool to cool off.
“My uncle said I wasn’t allowed – it wasn’t hygienic and I might drown. But I took my chances.”

His friends taught him to apply Vaseline so that his skin didn’t look grey from the water.

“I thought I had mastered the Vaseline thing, but then they saw how red my eyes were. I said I’d been sleeping. I got a big klap. But the more he hit me, the more I went to the pool.

“The municipal pools were the only real public space in the middle of these crap townships,” says Blecher.

“Often gangsters took them over to use as a hideout and a place to take girls. They became no-go zones. But in Lamontville, the pool was looked after by Sthembiso. His dad was a really famous inyanga. When gangsters came to take the pool, they pulled a gun on him. The gun jammed and the story spread that Sthembiso was bulletproof. No one messed with the Lamontville pool after that.”

It was the pool that chose Xaba’s career. “We’d wait outside till it opened, but could see there were guys inside swimming. They were members. They could go in when it was closed. That’s what I wanted and I joined.”

Xaba’s swimming talent saw him taking up the bodyboard that led to development clinics and a place on the national team. He was still a teenager when he got to travel to Hawaii and Portugal. By 18 he had qualified as a lifeguard.

Blecher was taken by the stories of the young swimmers and began developing Otelo, but funding ran dry and so she created the TV series Bay of Plenty, about the lifeguards of Durban. Xaba was one of several locals put through acting workshops.

“I never thought I’d be an actor myself. I thought I’d be a stunt double,” he says.

But when Blecher and her team saw how the camera loved him, they cast him in the lead.

Then the broadcaster suffered its famous economic collapse. The series went out of commission and Blecher returned to her film project. She was drawn to the harrowing backdrop of factional violence ahead of Nelson Mandela’s release because she’d lived through it as a journalist. She believed she had a duty to keep history alive and make it relevant to a new generation.

“Many of us have buried the images of what we saw,” she says. “When we dragged the memories out in the workshops it was very raw . . . I saw people’s bones being carried away by dogs. It took years of therapy . . . When you’ve seen that thing, how do you be normal?” It’s a question I ask Xaba.

“I remember the day Inkatha first came into Lamontville. I was about 10. If someone was being necklaced you’d go there and watch . . . We were afraid they would throw petrol bombs into the house. I had nightmares. I’d wake up afraid my mum was dead.

“But it was only when we were shooting those scenes in the film that it actually hit me. It made me appreciate life and who I am now.”
When the film’s lead actor, Jafta Mamabolo, had to learn to swim, it was Xaba who taught him.

“When Sihle was there he was fine. Sihle’s like that. You feel safe when he’s around,” says Blecher.

Today Xaba lives in a flat near the beach with his five-year-old son, Lwandile. Of course, he’s taught him to swim like a fish.

“For years I’ve made it a mission to prove the black community wrong about this myth that whites are better swimmers, that they were born to do it. Just look at me. I was born to do it too.”

» The African Movie Academy Awards take place tonight in Nigeria. Otelo Burning opens on the local cinema circuit on May 11 

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