Bleak future for swimming schools in Cape Town

Swimmatix owner Matt Pike and teacher Andrew Murphy.

The future for swimming schools is bleak, say owners, with many fearing permanent closure if they can’t reopen soon to head off mounting costs.

One swimming-school owner has started an online petition to have swim schools reopened earlier than level 1, saying they teach a skill that saves lives.

Matt Pike opened the first Swimmattix in Claremont in 2014 and now has seven in the province, the latest branch opening Rondebosch at the start of the year. He fears for the worst if the lockdown continues as is.

While the country looks set to move to level 3 of the lockdown at the end of May, swimming schools can only operate at level 1.

This, Mr Pike said, could ruin his business and put his 40 employees out of work. And with swim schools going under, fewer children would learn to swim, leading to more drownings.

Swimmattix taught more than 500 classes a week at its different branches.

“Our pools, even though closed, still need to be maintained and rent paid. Our business comes with high overheads, especially considering our facility locations and standards, something we are unable to cover if we are unable to generate income.”

He hopes the petition will lead to swim schools be reclassified as an educational service which would allow them to open at level 3.

“We are teaching a life skill that saves children’s lives. Drowning is a huge problem in South Africa, and it was swim schools that were working towards bringing these numbers down. We work in an environment that can be controlled and with our safety measures in place provide a safe environment for our swimmers.”

Swimmattix has proposed having swim teachers use face guards at all times; keeping staff needed outside of the pool to a minimum; reducing class sizes for physical distancing; removing play areas; getting all patrons to wear material masks and use hand sanitiser; cleaning before, between and after lessons with alcohol-based products; getting office staff to work from home; allowing only one parent per child; checking the temperatures of teachers and staff daily; and training staff on precautions and safety measures.

Sunne Hutchison, from Bumps to Babes Aquatic Centre, said the lockdown had crippled her business. After working 15 years in the swimming industry, she was finally able to save up and open her own swimming centre in March. Six weeks later, lockdown forced her to close, and she fears that could become permanent.

“I could only pay my staff until the end of March so there are six families sitting without an income. I have applied to every grant I could to help them but have not even received a reply from anyone. I have been trying to give small amounts every few weeks out of my personal savings, but this has now come to an end. I am still receiving bills for rental and utilities. I was able to pay all the utilities but not the rental, and the bills just keep mounting up.”

Superswim Academy owner and instructor Leande Carstens said the lockdown had been financially devastating and had set back swim pupils’ progress.

The school had decided to freeze payments made for the second term, she said.

“This means that parents do not lose any money and we will keep their fees unused until they can return to swimming. My instructors and I are currently not earning any salaries as we cannot conduct lessons. Our families are suffering a great deal due to this,” she said.

“For the first time, I find myself struggling to keep my girls positive and motivated. The uncertainty is just too real.”

Ms Carstens said she was also worried about the impact lockdown would have on water safety for children as drowning was one of the leading causes of deaths in children.

“Being water safe and able to swim is not merely a nice to have but an essential life skill that could save your child’s life. Children are now spending all their time at home and as much as parents try to be observant and present at all times- accidents do still occur.

“In South Africa more than 600 children die by drowning each year, and many more are disabled by a non-fatal drowning incident. Children under the age of 5 are the most vulnerable group with the most drownings taking place in the home or within 50 metres of home. This is not just in swimming pools, but also washing buckets, bathtubs and other danger zones for young children.”

Ms Carstens said her pupils had lost almost eight weeks of swimming.

“Some of these children have taken months to warm up to us… We will need to start from scratch in building up the trust relationship between swimmer and instructor.”

Mr Pike said his petition had so far drawn 5 000 signatures and had he started a group with 300 swim teachers across the country to get swim schools acknowledged as educational and essential, but so far nothing had come from those efforts.

“We are calling on government to let us return to work to teach the children of South Africa this very essential life skill, sooner rather than later,” he said.