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Water Safety in South Africa

by Ingrid Hale
Water Safety South Africa

The Princess Charlene of Monaco Foundation is working with the National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI) in South Africa towards drowning prevention  by raising awareness around water safety.


I saved my brother from drowning in our swimming pool at home when I was 12 years old. Fooling around with his friends, as kids do, he was pushed under water where it was too deep for him to stand and he didn’t come up.

Luckily I was nearby, saw what was happening, and responded instinctively. It was the first time I’d felt grateful to my mother for the swimming lessons she’d forced on me a couple of years earlier. I hated them. I was not a strong swimmer, and I swallowed a lot of water in those sessions!

I’m not sure I’d ever practised the lifesaving sidestroke but I’d seen it on TV and somehow managed to get my brother to the steps safely. My brother was only a few years older than three-time World Champion and Olympic gold medallist Ryk Neethling when he, too, almost drowned in a neighbour’s swimming pool.

The Olympic champion recalls that incident, which took place in Bloemfontein when he was just five years old. ‘There were a couple of boys in the pool and I was in the shallow end on the steps. I went in a little bit too deep. I wasn’t that strong in the water, and I ended up at the bottom of the pool and I just kind of lay there. Luckily one of the oldest boys saw this after a couple of seconds, jumped in and pulled me out, otherwise I would have died,’ says Neethling. ‘It was obviously very clear that I wasn’t water safe. My mom freaked out and took me to swimming school the following day. She tells the story that I refused to get in the water for a few days but said, “I’m paying a lot of money for these lessons; you’d better get in the water.” So I got in the water and that’s where it all started.’

Neethling has since established Swimming StarsTM Learn to Swim Schools (in Gauteng, Mpumalanga and the Western Cape) where one of the main goals is to make kids water safe. After eight to 10 lessons with an instructor they know how to float on their back if they fall in, or get to the side, or find the 90 seconds needed to save them from drowning. ‘It’s a good system. It also creates a lifelong passion among people for water, where they’re comfortable in it, and they love it.’


Neethling is an ambassador for the Princess Charlene of Monaco Foundation South Africa (PCMFSA), and was appointed CEO in December 2017.

The Foundation’s mission is to:
• raise public awareness about the dangers of water and drowning
• teach children preventative measures to decrease water-related morbidity and mortality
• teach people basic CPR.

The PCMF has established 149 projects in 33 countries to help meet these goals and is partnering with the NSRI in South Africa to further promote water safety, and ultimately to prevent drowning. ‘What we’re very excited about is the work the NSRI does in the classrooms. They send facilitators in to talk to the kids, to interact with them, and teach them what to do if a child falls in to the water – how to get them out, how to conduct CPR. Her Serene Highness Princess Charlene is very passionate about this,’ says Neethling.

More than 600 children die by drowning annually in South Africa, and many more are disabled. The Foundation focuses on children and youth because they are particularly vulnerable. Children under the age of five are the most affected.


The NSRI was established some 50 years ago as a search and rescue organisation. In 2006 the lack of data around drowning led them to request a research document from the South African Medical Research Council, the results of which showed that children were most at risk of drowning, especially those from impoverished communities. This led to the establishment of the NSRI Education Programme, which to date has reached more than two million children. Her Serene Highness Princess Charlene of Monaco is patron of this programme.

For the past three years, the Foundation has worked with the NSRI to create a wide network within which to prevent drowning through public awareness, education and survival swimming skills development. ‘We have a huge challenge to reach a million school children every year and make them water safe. We have worked with PCMFSA CEO Ryk Neethling to scope out a number of joint initiatives that we will roll out over the next two years, including a collaboration to develop an accredited survival swimming course that is not restricted by copyright so that it can be freely shared nationwide and worldwide,’ says Dr Cleeve Robertson, CEO of the NSRI. ‘Each initiative ensures that we save lives, change lives and create a future for one person, one family and one community at a time.’

Water Safety South Africa

Percy Mthombeni in action teaching water safety to children at Phakamani Combined school in Soweto. Picture Andrew Ingram / Sea Rescue

NSRI instructors visit schools and teach children what to do in an emergency, who to call for help, how to rescue a friend and how to do hands-on CPR. ‘We are excited to partner with the NSRI to reach as many children as possible to teach them basic water safety and CPR. The NSRI has a long track record in drowning prevention and its goals fall directly in line with those of Princess Charlene of Monaco in saving lives through education. This partnership will get us one step closer to reaching our goals of reaching a million children per year,’ says Neethling.

The NSRI currently has 19 full-time water-safety instructors who teach the water-safety programme in schools around SA. Of these, five have qualified as Learn to Swim instructors and another four will qualify in the near future.

The survival swimming programme is based on one that the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) released in November 2017 and is adapted for children in SA. NSRI instructors will teach the survival swimming lessons, which are currently being trialled, and the completed training document will be available to anyone who would like to use it by the end of this year.

The programme focuses on how to teach children to control their breathing, orientate themselves in the water and get out of danger when they suddenly find themselves out of their depth. It is an outcomes-based set of lessons in which children will be able to achieve various goals at different paces and will be rewarded with a certificate of competence when they have achieved the final goal of being able to get to safety after an unexpected immersion. NSRI aims to have the survival swimming programme operational through its professional water-safety instructors by January 2020.

Water Safety South Africa


Over the past year, the PCMFSA has been working with Lifesaving South Africa to reduce deaths by drowning through the WaterSmart programme at various schools throughout SA. Ten Lifesaving South Africa-accredited lifeguards have been trained as swimming coaches, and teach at local schools.

In 2017 the programme was presented to 18 474 Grade 4 pupils in 83 schools with the aim of raising awareness of drowning. Since July 2018, the Foundation has been involved in assisting the programme to reach more than 30 000 pupils in 175 schools.

Neethling believes that although the work of the Foundation has made major strides, far more can be done to combat the risk of South Africans drowning. ‘Lifesaving South Africa and the PCMFSA have done so well to create momentum with this important cause, yet so much more needs to be achieved if we wish to prevent drowning in this country,’ he says. ‘I have spent my life in the water and feel at home there, but I’m always painfully aware of the threats that oceans, rivers and even swimming pools present. The danger should never be underestimated.’

Please visit pcmfsa.co.za for more information.

Water Safety South Africa


NSRI’s Pink Rescue Buoys are positioned at drowning hot spots at beaches, rivers and dams across SA. There are currently 408 Pink Rescue Buoys in use, or in the process of installation
around the country.

To date they have been used to help save 35 people, nine of whom are children. While they are not intended to be a replacement for emergency services, they are a tool to bridge the gap until the professionals arrive to assist in situations where every minute counts.

The Pink Rescue Buoy board displays local emergency numbers and a location that can be communicated to first responders, thus saving crucial minutes. The bright pink colour of the flotation buoys allows them to be spotted easily by emergency services personnel on the scene.

Donations and sponsors are invited for the Pink Rescue Buoys, which cost R1 500 each.
Visit sea-rescue-supporter.myshopify.com for more information.

[Working Towards Drowning Prevention] – Words By Debbie Hathway

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