Sea change: Struggle hero’s daughter swims from Robben Island
Her father, Saths Cooper, was once imprisoned there. Now she swam from it to save children's lives
The rocks, icy water, choppy swell and the sharks create a treacherous passage between Robben Island and the shores of Cape Town.
But those dangers did not deter swimmer Oneida Cooper, 25, from swimming 7.3km from the island to Bloubergstrand.
She swam for her father, struggle hero Dr Saths Cooper, who was once imprisoned with Nelson Mandela on the island, and to raise funds to teach underprivileged children to be water-safe through her nonprofit Making Waves Together SA.
“My father spent five years on Robben Island [from 1976 to 1982] when he was arrested as a student activist. I am the first descendent [of the struggle heroes] to do this swim.”
She visited the island on Saturday before her swim on Sunday October 7.
“It was such an emotional moment seeing his [her father’s] cell, and when I hit rock bottom during the swim I said to myself: ‘This is why you are doing it’.”
The swim from Robben Island to Bloubergstrand is 7.3km as the crow flies, but swells and a fierce wind meant Cooper swam 8km.
“We were meant to swim on Friday, but conditions were too bad. Little did we know that the conditions would be even worse on Sunday.
“The first 10 metres you get used to the cold water, everything seemed fine, but the water was only calm because it was sheltered by rock and kelp.
“But once I hit the clear water it got very choppy with 3m swells. At around 2.5km into the swim, I felt like I was shutting down. I begged my brother Athisten to take me out [of the water]. My brother just said: ‘You are looking good. It’s all in your mind’.
“It was so hard, even around a mile out [1.6km from Bloubergstrand] I was still begging them to take me out. My brother jumped in at the 300m mark and swam with me into shore. It was such a special moment. My dad and mom were waiting for me and they were really emotional.”
Cooper and her brother run Bubble Babies swim school. At the beginning of the year, they approached Nkosi’s Haven to take some children for swimming lessons.
“I said to my brother that we’re going to help these kids.”
With the blessing of founder and director Gail Johnson, she took a group of 20 boys between the ages of six and 13 for swimming lessons.
Cooper said: “I took them every second Saturday, and in under three months everyone was water-safe. And that’s how the island swim came about. We managed to raise R70,000.”
She added the swim was one of the hardest things she’d ever done.
“I don’t want to see the ocean again, not for a while. Swimming pools with blue lines at the bottom that I can follow are for me.”
There are about 1,500 fatal drownings annually in SA and, according to SA Medical Journal (SAMJ), most of those involve children younger than 15.
They collected data between 1995 and 2016 that showed most fatalities happened in urban areas, meaning more drownings occurred in swimming pools than in the sea or in dams.
Nikki Bush, creative parenting expert, speaker and author, believes parents no longer have the time nor the money to teach their children to swim.
“Parents instinctively want to protect their children, but modern parents are time-starved and cash-strapped, and activities like teaching children to swim are extramural; therefore it takes time and costs money.”
Cooper said the money raised would allow 100 children to get swimming training.
“It takes around six months to get a child water-safe; each child needs around R3,000 for six months of training, equipment, transport and swimming gear.”
Red Cross Children’s Hospital head of trauma Dr Sebastian van As said: “We have a tremendous problem with drowning, and people don’t realise it is a silent occurrence. The biggest incidences will happen between the ages of two and three. The children topple over into buckets or pools and sink to the bottom without anyone hearing anything.”