Swimming provided Arafat Gatabazi with a way to live his life with purpose. Just five years after learning to swim for the first time, he conquered the gruelling swim from Robben Island to Blouberg.


Arafat jumped into a pool for the first time five years ago, little knowing that he would fall in love with swimming and that it would change the whole direction of his life.

He was then living in the Homestead Street Children’s Home after arriving in the country as a 17-year-old refugee from the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo.

“Life in the children’s home was very difficult as most of the kids had little to no aspiration in life,” he says. “The programmes the Home introduced us to gave us hope – and swimming was the programme that I came to love and enjoy a lot.”

After that life-changing plunge, he began watching videos on YouTube on how to swim. He would then put what he had learned into practice every time he went to the pool but, he says, “I swallowed water all the time and wasn’t moving at all, until one day the lady who took us to swim approached me and started showing me how to do it.”

The lady then got him and another boy from the Home enrolled in a swimming club. The other boy was training to do the swim from Robben Island to Blouberg, and the two trained together. Arafat decided that he, too wanted to do the swim some day. After several months of training, the other boy unfortunately went back onto the street, but Arafat was offered the chance to take his place.

“I said yes without knowing what I was getting myself into as I had never been in the ocean before, let alone the icy water of the Atlantic Ocean,” he recalls.

A short 11 months after learning to swim, Arafat made his first attempt to swim from Robben Island to Blouberg, a 7.5 km stretch of frigid water.

“I had many reasons for doing the swim, but the most important one was to show the Homestead boys that we could achieve bigger things in life if we set our mind to it,” he says. “I went with the goal of completing the swim, but the cold was so bad that I got hyperthymia and passed out while swimming. I had to be pulled out of water after completing 6.5 km. I had only one kilometre to go, but that was not my day.”

Disappointed but still determined to achieve his goal, Arafat tried again three weeks later, and this time completed it in three hours and 33 minutes.

Since then, he has completed various other swims around the Western Cape, including around Robben Island and Cape Point. He also did the crossing to Robben Island a further three times. All his swims have raised funds for various South African charities.

But he kept coming back to that first swim, the crossing to Robben Island. In October 2017, he attempted a fourth crossing. Again, the cold water defeated him, paralysing his hands. His disappointment was compounded by the fact that the swim was intended to raise money for a much-needed classroom at an Early Childhood Development Centre in Khayelitsha.

Nothing daunted, he began to prepare for another attempt. This time around, he decided he needed a swimming mate. He chose a 12 year old, and the two practised swimming in the icy sea. They finally made their attempt on 21 April this year, with proceeds from the swim to go to the Chaeli campaign, which works with children with disabilities.

“This time around, the weather conditions were amazing, and we managed to complete the swim in two hours and 30 minutes. My 12-year-old companion became the second-youngest person to complete this crossing,” he says proudly. “Completing this swim was a great feeling. I felt relieved because my last attempt failed, but it was even more special to see this young boy’s determination to do the whole swim for a good cause.”