Life Saving

The two disciplines - still water and surf - lifesaving have been combined into one competitive sport, although they are quite different.

This website serves merely to show how competitive lifesaving and swimming are related activities in South Africa. Lifesaving, as a public service, was a driving force behind the need to develop swimming skills to prevent drownings. Many people participated in lifesaving as well as others forms of aquatic sports like swimming or diving.

Traditionally Lifesaving was divided into still water lifesaving - rivers, dams and swimming pools, and surf lifesaving - in the ocean. The former has its origins in England, while surf lifesaving was born in Australia in the early 20th century. Both later developed a competitive side, with a biennial world championships, while maintaining the element of public service.

In 2003 the various still water and surf lifesaving governing bodies united to form Lifesaving South Africa.

South Africa Lifesaving now consists of over 60 Surf Lifesaving Clubs strung along the whole South African coastline and over 50 Freshwater Clubs spread throughout South Africa.

The first Surf Lifesaving world championships were held in Durban in 1974.

Today the surf and still water elements have been combined and biennial international lifesaving championships are held for both surf and still water events.

Still water lifesaving

Early swimming galas and carnivals usually included lifesaving events, where competitors demonstrated various techniques and performed staged rescues against a clock. Many South Africa schools have taught lifesaving and pupils completed the Royal Lifesaving Society certification courses - some still do today. Inter-provincial lifesaving championships were held for both forms, and especially during the 1970's and 80's, Springbok still water teams competed in Europe, while surf lifesavers went to Australia, New Zealand and the USA. In 1774 the English Royal Humane Society founded to combat ignorance and superstition; investigate and discredit inadequate methods of recuscitating the apparently drowned. They were concerned at the number of people wrongly taken for dead - and, in some cases, buried alive.

The Humane Society - then called the 'Society for the Recovery of Persons Apparently Drowned' - set out 5 key aims:

  • to publish information on how to save people from drowning
  • to pay 2 guineas to anyone attempting a rescue in the Westminster area of London
  • to pay 4 guineas to anyone successfully bringing someone back to life
  • to pay 1 guinea to anyone - often a pub-owner - allowing a body to be treated in his house
  • to provide volunteer medical assistants with some basic life-saving equipment

An 2011 email from the Secretary of the Royal Humane Society states as follows:

A list of Humane Societies’ dates of establishment which has “Cape of Good Hope 1842” which suggests there was at least one club in SA but I have no further info.
The RHS had a number of representatives in the Union of South Africa who would report cases direct to us and awards were made from London. They were in Bloemfontein, Cape Town, Durban, E London, Grahamstown, Jo’burg, Kimberley, Mossel bay, Natal (Margate), Natal (Pt Edwards), Port Alfred, Port Elizabeth, Port St Johns and Pretoria. Awards ceased to be given to SA in 1950. From 1955 there was correspondence about an attempt to form a Society but nothing appears to have come of it. There were further letters initiated by Willem Steenkamp of the Presidents Council, in 1992 but that correspondence also petered out. My predecessor wrote to South African Lifesaving, 35 Livingston Road, Durban 4001 in Dec 1996 but received no reply.

In 1891 two members of the Amateur Swimming Association of Great Britain formed the Swimmers Life-Saving Society, later to become the Royal Life Saving Society. The secretary of the Society visited South African in 1913, and reported the enthusiasm for lifesaving present in the country.

Surf Lifesaving

Springbok swimmers like Ricky Colepepper, Lee McGregor, Paul Blackbeard, Graham Hill, Nicky Gray, Tricia Butcher, Gary Brinkman - and many more - have also been surf lifesaving champions. 

South African Surf Lifesaving began in Durban in 1927, shortly after visiting lifesavers from Australia paraded along the beachfront of Durban, demonstrated lifesaving techniques and encouraged the formation in Durban of the first two clubs, the Durban Surf Life Saving Club - Durban Surf is the only non-Australian club to have ever won the World Title, and they did it not once but twice - and the Pirates Lifesaving Club.

Another famous South African surflifesaving club is Warnadoone Club, on the Natal South Coast, which was the next of several clubs to be formed during the following years and in 1933 the Lifesaving Clubs formed the Surf Lifesaving Association of South Africa, consisting of four Provincial Associations.

As early as 1913, the Royal Life Saving Society had formed its first South African Branches for teaching and certifying its lifesaving techniques at swimming pools and inland waterways.

In 1961 it was reconstructed as the South African Lifesaving Society and in 1979 the name of the Society was again changed to the South African National Water Safety Council.

In 1980 the South African Surf Lifesaving Union was formed to serve the cause of certain clubs who opposed the Government of the day and consisted of three Provincial Associations.