Campaign for swimming pool recalled

2009-01-07 00:00

The drowning at Alexandra swimming pool last month coincided with the visit to South Africa of the man who as a schoolboy was instrumental in getting the first public swimming pool for black people built in the city.

Hanif Bhamjee, who was about 15 years old at the time, said his aim was to make swimming safe.

He recalled that when he was growing up in Pietermaritzburg in the early 50s and 60s there were no swimming facilities for black residents, while the city boasted several public swimming pools for whites. Every summer holiday was marred by reports of drownings in the Dorpspruit or Msunduzi Rivers. Often the children were Bhamjee’s classmates or friends from the neighbourhood.

Bhamjee who currently lives in Wales, was featured in the newspaper on Tuesday and a reader who spotted his photograph recalled his audacious campaign to lobby the white city council to build a pool for blacks.

The Witness managed to catch up with him just before he departed and photograph him at the Berg Street pool, which was opened in 1965. He said unfortunately due to apartheid laws the facility was only enjoyed by Indian and coloured children at the time.

According to Bhamjee, he was a pupil at Woodlands High School and involved in the Natal Indian Youth Congress. With no swimming facilities, local children would slip off to the Dorpspruit or the Duzi to cool off. He reeled off a number of names of children he personally knew who drowned, one of them the eldest son of the late Alderman L.S. Moodley.

He recalled that the catalyst for the campaign was the death at the end of 1962 of Balandren Pillay, a classmate of his younger brother Ismail. According to news reports at the time, Pillay (14) of Greyling Street was a pupil at Nizamia government state-aided school and was due to write his standard six exams. He drowned in the Duzi on a sweltering hot Sunday afternoon.

Bhamjee mobilised the Youth Congress to start a petition among pupils in downtown schools requesting a swimming pool. All the petitions were handwritten on foolscap paper. He recalled the words on the petition as being something along the lines of: “We the undersigned request a swimming pool for our community. There have been numerous drownings of non-white children.

Why are there pools for whites only?”

They gathered well over 2 000 signatures and adults were not allowed to participate in the campaign, Bhamjee said.

He said it was not easy getting signatures. The campaign started immediately after a state of emergency was declared in the country and many parents were afraid that their children would get into trouble for signing the petition. They were also afraid of the repercussions of their children being associated with Bhamjee, who was known as a political activist and as a schoolboy had been harassed by the security police.

But Bhamjee said many teachers were very supportive and recalled the late Mr Lalloo in particular and a Mr Greaves from the Coloured High School in Greyling Street.

He handed over the petitions to a city councillor who he believes could have been the late Michael Daly. “He was a liberal and a friend of Peter Brown. I would go back to him time and again and he would assure me that he was doing his utmost to motivate for the pool. He would say ‘be patient, these things take time’. In our discussions I pushed for swimming lessons for children and I remember him saying that arrangements would have to be made to get lifesavers from Durban as there were no qualified non-white lifesavers in the city.”

The pool was built in 1965, but Bhamjee did not see its completion because by that time he had left as a political exile to live and study overseas. He next returned to South Africa in 1992 and this was the first time he saw the completed pool.

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