Ground Up

Early in 2016, a few months before his 65th birthday, Sadick ‘Dickie’ Holtman, the tea-brewing custodian of the Turkish baths on Long Street, will retire after nearly 30 years on the job. As an employee of the City of Cape Town he is entitled to a gratuity payout in addition to his monthly pension. He plans to use the extra money to fund his first pilgrimage to Mecca. At work he faces the Islamic holy city three or four times each day, depending on the season, and kneels between the changing room stalls to pray. Then he returns to his chair and picks up the newspaper, or boils the kettle again, or strolls to the sauna to tell a customer to get out soon, or mops the tiled floor, which is always wet.

Holtman oversees the baths on Fridays, Sunday mornings and Tuesday afternoons. The baths are reserved for women on Tuesday mornings, Saturdays and Mondays — "Dickie wishes he could be here then," his regular customers joke — and he takes most Wednesdays off. On workdays he holds domain over the changing room like a weary butler. He welcomes new arrivals, directs them to vacant cubicles and fetches them threadbare towels. Men visiting for the first time get a perfunctory tour of the facilities — steam rooms, sauna, plunge pool, showers — and are left to do as they please.

"If you don't get in that plunge pool you're wasting your money," he tells them. "This cold water is the best part of this whole place."

The Turkish baths are quiet most days, despite being located in the middle of the city. Men talk in groups or hunker silently in the sauna or snooze on the bunks in their cubicles. The trickle and hum from the plunge pool pump dampens noise from the street. Impressionistic murals of public squares filled with pigeons adorn the walls. An hour in the baths costs R48 and passes slowly; a four-hour ticket costs R101.

The adjoining indoor swimming pool, which is heated and costs R5.50 to use, is also usually empty, except on evenings when children arrive for lessons and a handful of veterans churn laps.

"People walk past every day and never look inside," Holtman told me when I interviewed him for this story. "They’re amazed when they see this place for the first time. Many people don’t know it exists."

The Long Street municipal swimming pool opened in 1908. The Turkish baths extension, the only public facility of its kind in South Africa, was added in 1927. The building is architecturally Victorian — curved window hoods, outsized brass doorknobs, ornate Art Nouveau signage — and is protected by heritage legislation. Today it is wedged between a petrol station and a backpacker hostel, faced by the all-night McDonalds at the bottom of Kloof Street.

The complex is run by the City’s Sports, Recreation and Amenities department, which manages 35 public swimming pools in Cape Town. The department offers its amenities for free or below cost — these include resorts, sport fields, community centers, public toilets, beaches, tidal pools and stadiums — and is heavily subsidized by rates and taxes. The latest draft municipal budget, published in March, allocates R66,000 for general swimming pool maintenance and R1.8 million for the upkeep of heritage assets this year. There is no specific provision for the Long Street Baths.

Cape Town architect Karinina Ingwersen, however, believes that the site is in need of urgent attention.

"The complex has not had substantial funds for changes or significant upgrading in a very long time," she writes in a 2012 report on the condition of the facilities, prepared at her own behest for the municipality. "It is one of the most neglected buildings in the area owned by the Council."

A frequent user of the complex, Ingwerson has drafted a full proposal for its redevelopment, including "extensive and overall" renovations, a new color scheme, upgrades to the Turkish baths — "they should be operated professionally as a fully fledged facility, with the traditional cleansing procedure provided" — and the installation of a coffee shop (with wi-fi) on the mezzanine level above the swimming pool.

But the estimated cost of the project — at least R10 million — is beyond the City’s means, and Ingwerson’s drawings have gained little traction. According to Alderman Belinda Walker, Mayoral Committee Member for Community Services and Special Projects, there are currently "no major repairs or upgrades planned".

"This situation is symptomatic of the way the city treats old buildings," Ingwerson told me. "There’s never enough money. Heritage preservation isn’t a priority. That’s the reality."

Sadick Holtman is balding but the skin on his face is smooth. He has a thick grey goatee and moustache — it’s best to shave right after a sauna, he says — and wears faded City of Cape Town tee shirts to work. A forest of black hairs sprouts from the tip of his nose. He took a job at the swimming pool in 1985 and began staffing the Turkish baths in the early 1990s. "This is an old place," he said, shrugging off criticisms of his workplace. "Most customers enjoy it. Some people just like to look for problems."

Holtman grew up in Salt River, two blocks away from Kipling Street, then the dividing line separating his suburb from whites-only Observatory. His family moved to Woodstock’s notorious Gympie Street when he still was a child. "It was a weird place but I never mixed much with the people there," he said. "I spent most of my time in Salt River." When he was 21 years old he moved again, to Bonteheuwel, after starting work as a messenger for Afrikaans newspaper Die Burger, which had its offices on Long Street.

"This area was different then," he said. "There were lots of furniture shops and residential apartments. No clubs. It was quiet." Fifteen years later, at the age of 34, Holtman began the routine of dashing down Long Street after work at the baths. "In those days we stayed open until 10 pm. My train left at quarter past. I never missed it. I was a young man then — I could still run."

Cape Town was a dissonant place in the late 1980s: parts of the city were superficially integrated while the Cape Flats roiled with the violence of the apartheid state. (The situation is not radically dissimilar today.) "There were blacks in the bars, on the buses, and in the universities," writes Rian Malan in My Traitor’s Heart, recounting his return from exile in the United States during that period. "There were even blacks in Cape Town’s municipal swimming pools. What a hallucinatory sight that was."

Like most public swimming pools in central Cape Town, the Long Street Baths complex was proclaimed a whites-only area under the Reservation of Separate Amenities Act, but by the time Holtman began working there the overt racial barriers to entry had been relaxed. "I remember when the first so-called people of color came here," he told me. "It was 1986 or ‘87. Two Indian guys, one Hindu and one Muslim. They started visiting every Wednesday."

Holtman’s earliest regular customers were old Jewish businessmen. They would close their shops early and meet at the sauna to relax. Entrance cost R8 and included a massage — the municipality employed a masseur until 2007. If the men requested drinks or food Holtman would walk to the convenience store across the street. He monitored the parking metres to make sure their cars didn’t get ticketed outside. To slake their thirst he brewed giant mugs of iced tea.

He had a less straightforward relationship with another group of frequent visitors: gay men who used the Turkish baths as a cruising spot, seeking liasons with other men.

"There was a stigma attached to this place," Holtman said. "A lot of gay men used to come here. If other customers complained we’d speak to the guys diplomatically, ask them to stop, but there wasn’t more we could do. This is a public place. If the men came back and paid their entrance fees we didn’t chase them away."

On Graciousness and Convenience: Cape Cottaging 1960 – c. 1980, an essay by South African author Michiel Heyns, explores the phenomenon of ‘cottaging’ — gay men using public facilities for sex — in Cape Town during apartheid. Male homosexual conduct was illegal until 1994, yet despite the constant threat of police intervention a furtive network of meeting places operated across the country. (Female same-sex conduct was never legislated against.) Popular cottaging locations in Cape Town included the central train station, the Golden Acre, the old Stuttafords complex on Adderley Street — once the largest department store in Africa — and the Syfrets building on Greenmarket Square. "Cape Town was a community of cottages with its own band of secret citizens," writes Heyns. "They shared a language of signs, of gesture and glance, and they traced their routes and established their landmarks over the official map."

Holtman told me that he had "no problem" with his gay customers but couldn’t condone anything that bothered other men visiting the baths. "I knew a lot of them. We used to converse. Some still come here for their steam or sauna — but a lot of other places have opened for them in Greenpoint and all that."

Workers at the baths get half an hour off for lunch each day. Holtman usually remains on the premises but on Fridays he walks to mosque. Before 2006 he would visit the Quawatul Indian Mosque on Loop Street or either of the two mosques on Long Street: Hanafee or Palm Tree, the latter housed in the oldest unaltered building on the street. These days he prays at the new Jumu’a Mosque on Orange Street: "It’s just around the corner. In our religion we can walk into any mosque in the world when it’s time to pray."

When he retires he will take mosque closer to Lentegeur, Mitchells Plain, where he now lives with his wife and grown son. "If I hadn't worked for the City of Cape Town I wouldn't have my own house now," he told me. "Thank God for that, and that when I finish up I’ll get a pension. That’s a plus."

Reclining in his plastic chair, newspaper folded up next to him, the plunge pool pump thrumming, he stopped and looked around the changing room. "I don’t know what I’ll do next. I’ll have to find something. I can't just sit around."

An old man splashed from the sauna to his cubicle and drew the faded curtains shut.

"I’ll miss the people here. All these years and I never got bored."

He stood to fetch the man a towel.

"In my philosophy, everything has got a beginning and everything has got an end," he said. "That’s how it goes. Doesn’t matter which way you look at it."

(Photographs © Kimon de Greef.)