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Swimming against the tide of drowning deaths



It took only a few seconds for two-year-old Nathaniel ‘Natey’ Canter to wander to his family’s swimming pool on a hot Cape Town December day in 2016, and drown. Now, in light of World Drowning Prevention Day on 25 July, his parents want others to be aware of the dangers of water.

“The biggest thing was how quickly it happened,” says his mother, Jane Fraser. “It was silent and undramatic. I was right there.” Her message to other parents is “to make your children as water safe as possible, as quickly as possible. You cannot be too careful or too safe. The number of people I see who have pools with no protection is alarming. A lot of hotels and B&Bs have open pools and ponds too.

“Don’t assume it’s just neglectful parents that these things happen to. There can be a degree of comfort in thinking ‘bad things happen to other people’. The sad fact is it could happen in the time it takes to go to the loo. Water is dangerous – way more than you’d expect.”

Looking back, “Natey loved water and swimming. We had been actively swimming with him and informally teaching him, but he had not yet actually had formal lessons. We’d approached a few swim schools but had not yet been able to get him in. We had a baby gate on our outside door, and a pool net. We had also just bought a pool fence and were days away from having it installed.

“We were drilling him not to go near the water without us, and had repeatedly read Curious George at the Aquarium, about a baby penguin that fell into water and needed to be rescued, explaining to him that it happened because the baby penguin didn’t listen to his mommy and went to the water without her. Sadly, in the moment, none of it seemed to make any difference.

“Do not let your children have free access to open water at all,” she emphasises. “They are compelled by it and will approach it. It seems water and fire have similar innate appeal – and similar catastrophic risks. Absolute vigilance is the necessary condition for parents.

“Knowing CPR is a good idea,” she adds. “I still wonder if maybe I did it wrong, focusing too much on mouth-to-mouth and not enough on chest compressions. Know your emergency numbers. We had them printed out and I needed that, because your mind goes blank. Call for help as fast as possible.”

One of the most horrific aspects of a drowning death is that “it’s classed as a ‘preventable death’ and also because it’s an ‘unnatural death’, it gets investigated,” explains Fraser. “This is something we didn’t know. Six months after Natey died, and when I had just conceived Benjamin, I was called in to the police station and told that I had to get legal assistance with the case. It was devastating and completely caught me off guard, at a time where we had just started trying to move forward. We now work to try help prevent drowning tragedies, but when it does happen, we help to let the parents know what to expect in the months following, so it’s not so additionally traumatic.”

She and Natey’s father, Andrew Canter, now have Benjamin, “who has bought new joy to our lives. But he hasn’t replaced Natey. We still love and miss Natey dearly and think of him daily. We speak of him often, including with Benjamin, who knows all about Natey and even sometimes cries and says he wishes Natey was still here.”

With Benjamin, “We were very proactive about water safety,” she says. “We had him in swimming classes since he was six months, drilling into him how he may not go near water without us being with him. It took me a full five years to be able to contemplate getting back into our swimming pool. I took Benjamin in for the first time at three-and-a-half years old and he was able to swim across. It was a difficult but cathartic moment.”

Fraser finds it difficult to see Benjamin reaching milestones that Natey never got to. ”Benjamin is four now, while Natey only got to two years and four months. It’s also been bittersweet to see Natey’s friends growing up while he remains frozen in time and our memories.”

At the time of his passing, Natey had just finished his first year at the Alon Ashel Herzlia play group in Sea Point. “I was absolutely blown away by the support of the Jewish community,” says Fraser. “It still gives me goosebumps to think about it. Natey drowned at sunset on the Friday. On Saturday morning, Cheryl Lazarus (Alon Ashel’s principal at the time) arrived. She wrapped us in her supportive embrace. From then on there was a steady stream of people, food, and support. When we were dazed and didn’t know what to do, the Jewish community gathered around us. I am in awe and indebted to the absolute metaphorical safety net and comfort shawl that the Jewish community provided.

“The death of a child is something that never leaves you,” she says. “It’s like having a limb amputated. At first it is acutely agonising, almost unbearable, and very hard to accept. But in time you learn to live without it, but there’s clearly something missing. Andrew loved Natey with his whole heart – my biggest life regret is being responsible for cutting their great love story short. It was a complete fairy-tale, with the most tragic of endings.”

Preventing such a tragedy was the life mission of the late Rikki Kotzen, who almost drowned herself as a child. “Her domestic worker jumped in to try save her, and also almost drowned,” says Cairn King, a swimming teacher at the late Kotzen’s Johannesburg school, Infant Aquatics Academy. “She was passionate about ensuring that both children and adults could save themselves in water, and would always give discounts to domestic workers doing the course.”

Kotzen trained King, and now King is continuing her legacy. But she needs help getting to the Infant Aquatics headquarters in Boulder, Colorado for a five-week training course in teaching small babies survival swimming. Kotzen’s husband, Ryan, managed to raise about $4 000 (R66 000) towards this, but it costs $12 000 (R198 000) just for the course, says King. She would be extremely grateful for any contribution, which would be an investment in making more children water safe in South Africa.

“My own son had just finished the course with Rikki when he fell into a pool in 2019. Thankfully he had done the course, and could save himself,” she adds. Her training will allow her to teach babies from the age of six months, specifically, this skill – to turn themselves on their backs and get air while they wait to be rescued. It won’t matter what they are wearing – even clothing or a full nappy – they will be able to do this.

If parents can’t get their children into a survival swim course, any swimming lesson is better than nothing, says King. However, she warns parents not to use any flotation devices; they give children a false sense of security and can make it difficult to turn over if they fall in head first. She warns against going with swim schools that use flotation devices. Rather, parents and teachers can hold children in the water. Getting them used to their faces being wet is also vital as soon as possible.

“We’ve had people from all sectors of South African society lose children to drowning,” says King. “Don’t wait to get your children water safe. After all, accidents don’t wait.”

To support King’s training in the United States, visit

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