CoJ drowns swimming hopes of a generation

The metro keeps budgeting for a swimming pool in Cosmo City that is now seven-years in the making while pools in Windsor West, Robin Hills, and Blairgowrie remain closed with no hopes of ever being utilised.

Way back in May 2016, then Member of the Mayoral Committee (MMC) for finance in the City of Johannesburg, councillor Geoffrey Makhubo delivered a budget speech in which the construction of a new swimming pool in Cosmo City was announced, as one of the projects the city’s department of community development would oversee that year.

It is now 2023, and the current MMC for finance, councillor Dada Morero also nodded to this unrealised project in his budget speech delivered on June 13, 2023. Seven years later and the pool only exists on paper.

“Community Development has further been allocated a three-year capital budget of R238.7 million for the upgrading and construction of facilities including multipurpose centres in Matholesville, Kaalfontein and Drieziek as well as a new swimming pool in Cosmo City,” the MMC announced.

However, this is not even the biggest problem. According to overview of the Johannesburg department of Community Development, the city is responsible for 57 swimming pools that should be open during weekdays. They open annually from September 1 and close for maintenance on March 31. On August 24, 2023 the CoJ released a media statement announcing that only 18 pools of the 57 were ready to open on September 1 and an additional 29 were to be opened during the season.

With 10 swimming pools completely unavailable, the department could only ready less than a third of the 57 pools to open on September 1. Can the department of community development be trusted to eventually deliver this promised pool in Cosmo City and keep it functional? Moreover, how is this disadvantaging the community in Cosmo and letting down the slogan of Johannesburg – a world class African city.

Professor Louis Grundlingh, a Johannesburg historian writes on municipal modernity and the politics of leisure in Johannesburg. The construction of swimming pools in Johannesburg  during the 1920s and 1930s were part of the council’s efforts towards British modernisation – a development in society that abandons agricultural and rural ways for industrial and urban ones.

Apart from the prestige of the town, there were health and sports related reasons for the need to construct swimming pools. “The link between the healing properties of water and the benefits of swimming as a healthy exercise soon became apparent,” Grundlingh said. From sunbathing to the introduction of aquatic sports, the swimming pools were a place to be for spectators and participators alike.

This unfortunately highlighted how Africans have long been at the bottom of the class, race, and cultural hierarchy.  The first official municipal swimming pool in Johannesburg opened on January 18, 1909, for the English-speaking white middle class at Ellis Park. The first swimming pool in an Afrikaans-speaking neighbourhood was built in 1929 at Mayfair. Africans only received their first swimming pool at the Wemmer Hostel site in 1936.

In 1994, South Africa realised democracy and the first democratic government of the country were faced with huge task of fast tracking the development of African lives, communities, and standards of living, including swimming and access to swimming pools.

Grundlingh explains how the construction of swimming pools has become “physical manifestations of municipal grandeur and pride of the city”. A pivotal part of place-selling at the time.

Prof. Louis grundlingh

The Johannesburg metropolitan municipality appointed their first post-apartheid mayor from the ANC in 1995, the late Isaac Mogase. In 2000, the ANC won the local elections again and appointed Amos Masondo as mayor. He served as mayor for 10 years over two terms until the ANC won the 2011 municipal elections and Parks Tau was appointed.

Nearing the end of Tau’s term, the late MMC for finance Geoffrey Makhubo announced in the budget speech, “New projects [will] include the construction swimming pools in Cosmo City, Ivory Park and various multipurpose centres…”. Little did he know that his organisation would lose Johannesburg to the DA  in August 2016.

Herman Mashaba was then elected as the new mayor from the DA. Part of his mayoral committee was the MMC for community development, councillor Nonhlanhla Sifumba. Coming in after the ANC’s long reign, she told Wits Vuvuzela that the state of the department as something that was in “ICU” (intensive care unit). Sifumba found that the repairs and maintenance budget was not being utilised, contractors were not paid, other were not working, “there  was just chaos in that particular department,” she said.

The Department of Community Development aims to “transform the delivery of sports, arts, culture and libraries by ensuring equitable access, development and excellence at all levels of participation, thereby improving social cohesion, nation building and the quality of life for all in the City of Joburg,” as stated in their overview. Sifumba sums it up as a department that takes a person “from cradle to grave” – meaning throughout life and speaks of its core mandate as , “provision of access more than anything, ” she said.

During Sifumba’s tenure, 48 swimming pools out of the 54 (at the time) opened on September 1, 2018. Including the now vandalised and abandoned Windsor West, Robin Hills, and Blairgowrie pools. She was also aware of the Cosmo City swimming pool as a project that was yet to begin, “there was budget arrangement that was done and unfortunately the contractor that was commissioned there, there were problems. Apparently, he didn’t have capital,” Sifumba said.

While the issues with the contractor went on, a part where Sifumba said that the authority of councillors limits their interference with tender-related business, the progress of the project was already delayed. “Money was taken from that project because there was no progress and it was funnelled to other projects,” she said.

During the DA’s tenure, the Cosmo City swimming pool was allocated a budget of R18-million in the 2018/2019 Integrated Annual Report(IAR) and then later adjusted to R3-million with nothing spent from it. “When they do adjustments in the city, they prioritise certain areas… the adjustment is not done at [community development] only, it’s done throughout [all departments],” Sifumba said.

Announced again in the 2019/2020 budget speech  by the then MMC for finance -Funzela Ngobeni – as a coming project, the Cosmo pool was then allocated a budget of R10-million. Financial progress was being made as the  2019/2020 IAR with R2.8-million spent from it and R7.2-million remaining from the original budget. This is after Herman Mashaba resigned as mayor over internal party politics and the ANC won the mid-term mayoral elections in December 2019, when Makhubo got more votes than Ngobeni.

Infographic by Otsile Swaratlhe

As per mayoral announcement, the mayor decides who they want on their MMC list and as expected, Makhubo appointed MMCs of his choice. Community development is now under Margaret Arnolds of the African Independent Congress (AIC) – a minority party. The appointment of a non-party member MMC by the mayor signals to what can be traced as the beginning of coalitions.

Arnolds’s role as MMC for community development was retained as the late mayor Jolidee Matongo had to replace Makhubo after he died due to covid-19 complications in 2021. Arnold’s tenure presented nothing remarkable for the city over the two-year period, as covid-19 and lockdown restrictions were the theme of that period.

However, it was interesting to find out that the budget of the Cosmo pool was adjusted to R7-million in the 2020/2021 IAR and no one to account for the already spent R2.8million and the carried over R0.2-million from the previous calendar year.

After seeing how beneficial coalitions are, the DA approached the 2021 local elections with the same strategy and were able to get former mayor Mpho Phalatse appointed as the mayor of the metro. Which she then introduced an MMC for community development from the African Democratic Country (ACDP) – Ronald Winston Harris.

The work and efforts of Harris’s role as MMC were overshadowed by the amount of motions of no confidence that Phalatse faced during her tenure. From November 2021 to January 2023, Phalatse faced a total of four motions of no confidence with the last one being the most successful and allowing her to be replaced by Thapelo Amad of Al-Jama-ah – another minority party. During this whole power struggle and exchanging of power, the Cosmo pool saw its budget adjusted again from R7-million to R15-million in the 2021/2022 IAR, still with no progress being made on the ground.

Coming with Amad as MMC for community is now the African Transformation Movement’s (ATM) Councillor Lubabalo Magwentshu. In the 2021/2022 to 2023/2024 medium term budget, Magwentshu is expected to now oversee an adjusted R27-million of a total estimated project cost of R42-million for a new Cosmo City swimming pool and community centre.

In a brief phone call conversation with the current MMC for finance Councillor Dada Morero, he directed any questions Wits Vuvuzela had to the MMC for community development. In multiple attempts to get the current MMC for this department – Magwentshu, he could not avail himself to answer any questions. This also goes for the councillor of the ward Cosmo City belongs to, ward 100 councillor Lyborn Ndou of the ANC.

To get an idea of what a community in Cosmo is missing out on, former MMC Sifumba painted her childhood in words, “I grew up in Soweto, Orlando West… Growing up, we had access to one pool, [the] now Orlando West Swimming pool. Going to the pool we would walk approximately 2km to the pool, at that age you always looked forward to going to the pool, especially when it’s hot.”

“Having a pool within a community brings about social cohesion. At times that is where you get to meet other people. We met people from Orlando East, people from Phefeni …Mofolo…People from different areas will converge in that pool and we [would have fun],” she said.

Unfortunately, social cohesion is not the only benefit of a pool that the Cosmo community is missing out on. Cosmo City residents are being deprived of opportunities for relaxation, fitness, and skills development. What could have been a community that produces another South African Olympic swimmer is now left in the unknown. As the residents continue to hope for the day when a swimming pool becomes a reality in their township, they also reflect on the potential for a brighter and healthier future with job opportunities that the pool would have brought.