Homeless boy explores open water swimming to for kids in Cape Flats

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Thabiso Molefi ran away from home and hitchhiked from the Free State to Cape Town in 2014 when he arrived in Cape Town, his first stop was Lagoon Beach in Milnerton. He couldn’t swim but nevertheless, he took off his clothes and then “just went to play around in the water”. 

Five years later, he completed the 7.5km open water swim from Robben Island to Big Bay on his first attempt. Molefi was born in Welkom and his parents were immigrants from Lesotho thus Molefi wasn’t registered at birth and did not have a birth certificate, so upon arriving in Cape Town, he was unable to register for school. “I ran away from my parents to get a better life,” he said. 

Molefi was homeless for two weeks and relied on strangers to survive until met a woman who introduced him to the Homestead Project for Street Children, an organization that provides a safe space for street children. He met Arafat Gatabazi, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) who was formerly homeless himself and had also previously been taken in by Homestead. In 2017 Gatabazi swam from Robben Island to Sea Point. He currently runs a swimming program for Cape Flats children. 

According to Liezl Conradie, Manager and Social Worker at the Homestead Project, “Many of the boys come from chaotic pasts, dealing with drugs and gangs. Once they get in sports that are high adrenalin like open water swimming it almost replaces that.”  Conradie adds that the swimming program dramatically changed the lives of the two boys. “The idea of the program is to try and inspire. Swimming helped me deal with my problems,” says Gatabazi

Molefi joined the swimming program in 2016 and Gatabazi coached and mentored him. He trained about three to four times a week for the open water swim from Robben Island. He would use a tidal pool as well as the public swimming pool in Long Street to swim two to three kilometres daily. 

On Sunday 5 January he swam from Robben Island to Big Bay in 3 hours and 4 minutes in water that was about 13 degrees centigrade. He says that the hardest part of the swim was to “not focus on the negative thoughts”, during difficult parts in the swim, Molefi would imagine his coach next to him and he would try and keep up. He completed the swim  which also pushed him to go back to Lesotho to sort out his birth documents. He is back in school to complete grade 11 and is helping Gatabazi teach at the swimming program. 

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