Swimming For Blackness, Against Whiteness In White-Dominated South African Swimming By Cheryl Roberts

29 Mar

The composition of SA swim teams are so white, you’d be forgiven for assuming that blacks ‘just can’t swim competitively’ nor ‘win SA titles and achieve international qualifying times’.   No black swimmer has yet represented South Africa at an Olympic Games; not during SA’s horrendous whites-only representation era or  post-apartheid South Africa although some black swimmers have represented South Africa at senior international swim events such as the world championship and continental swim champs.

Get this! Blacks can and do swim competitively in South Africa; they’ve been doing this for many decades. Black swimmers existed as anti-apartheid people in sport; they were the swimmers who played sport and fought for freedom in SA. Not only were they provincial and anti-apartheid national champions, they also achieved swim times comparable to and sometimes faster than advantaged white swimmers, all of whom didn’t care about or support the anti-apartheid sports struggle.

8cheryl roberts  in the rain forest in ghana

Cheryl Roberts (writer of the blog)


Over the past two years I’ve watched and documented the SA national senior swim champs in Durban and some provincial and national junior swim events. These events are very white, indeed: from the officials, to the competing swimmers, the parents and coaches. Are there blacks participating in these swim events? Yes,there are black swimmers, especially in the junior events. And some black parents are at these events and a few black coaches.

And there’s some superb emerging black junior swimmers, those with the talent to become world class swimmers. But will the junior swim talent of 15 year old girl swimmer, Khwezi Duma from Durban be nurtured and turned into world class swim prowess? Black junior girl swimmer, Khwezi Duma has already been identified by Swimming South Africa as  a swimmer to be recognised and selected for international competition. She has represented SA in junior and senior swim competition and is a leading swimmer in her age group category, recording amongst the best times at SA junior events. However, the junior black swimmer knows she must overcome the mental hurdle and believe she can win and be SA champion.

Swimming in South Africa is very white. Whiteness, white privilege and white arrogance dominates at national swim events in SA, coupled with white athlete competitiveness. At the swim events, the swimmers of all colours look friendly with each other. They compete against each other, cheer on their team mates of whatever colour, talk to each other in the warm up pool and seemingly look like a rainbow swimming family.

But looking deeper and outside of this assumed swimming rainbownism is the prevalence of whiteness galore and strangulation by whiteness and its accompanying white arrogance and domination.

I look out for the black swimmers, especially the girl swimmers because I center black girls and women in sport in my sport narratives and activism. I want to document black girls swimming and I want to show them winning and getting commendable times in the pool. I scan the electronic board indicating the line ups in the heats and here and there I see a black name. I get camera ready to document the black girl swimmer’s participation in SA swimming.

I’m looking out for Khwezi Duma, one of SA’s top girl age group swimmers. I notice Khwezi not performing as is expected of her; she’s finishing out of the final position in the heats. I ask her mother, one of the few black parents around at the championship, what’s up with Khwezi’s performances and she tells me Khwezi is struggling, just coming out of a terrible bout of flu.

Khwezi doesn’t show the strain or the pressure; she gets out the pool after the race as if its all okay. But I know Khwezi wants to prove her mettle; the performance she knows she can deliver. Its on a later day of the championship that Khwezi shows up. Its in the girls u18 50m backstroke (Khwezi’s specialist race), that she surges through the water at Durban’s aquatics centre and turns in a good seeded position. Khwezi gets a personal best and is seeded no.2 for the final, a heat performance that says she she should medal in the SA junior final. But Khwezi doesn’t medal; she finished 4th, just outside the medals.

Talent is one aspect to have in swimming, but its not enough. You’ve got to have the mental toughness to win. It’s not that black swimmers have inferior complexes or no confidence to believe they can win. The black girl swimmers are out there on their own, paving their personal swim journeys, struggling to win for themselves, their club and coach, parents and to show that black girls can be swimming champions.

There hasn’t been a black woman champion in post-apartheid SA. It’s tough out there not having black women swim champs to show you it can and has been achieved in another era of South African sport.

Much of the talented black junior swimmers around South Africa go to the ‘best’ coaches who happen to be white males. Once a coach coaches Olympic and world champions and international swimmers, then emerging swimmers are lured to the coach, so they too can achieve.

Khwezi Duma has been with some of SA’s best white male coaches in Durban and Johannesburg. She is presently with Seagulls in Durban, with head coach Graham Hill and former coach of Chad le Clos.

Can these white male coaches also bring out the talent in the black girl swimmers and take them onto the Olympic and world championship podiums? Are the black girl swimmers being looked after and developed s like any other talented swimmer? Most importantly, do white male coaches believe a black girl swimmer can be world class?

South Africa’s black junior girl swimmers are not only swimming against the clock but aginst white domination of SA swimming. They’re out there to usher in that moment when black girls and women become SA swim champions. For now, its black swimmers against the clock and SA swimming’s whiteness.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: