The town of Manenberg on the Cape Flats, Western Cape, is often associated with social ills like gangsterism and crime. For the ladies of Fearless Fitness, however, it is the birthplace of their movement towards better health and prosperity.
The sky is a clear blue when I head out to Sherwood Park Recreation Centre with my mother. For the past few months, she’s been regaling me with stories about her new friends at the fitness club she joined. The recreation centre itself is an innocuous looking space, nestled cosily amongst the homes on Sherwood Park’s fourth avenue.
Sherwood Park is a tiny area, and if you aren’t from there, you probably would not be able to discern where Manenberg ends, and Sherwood Park begins. As we walk into the building, I can hear the happy chatter of women who are glad to see each other. They dot the inside of the center in smaller groups, talking and laughing while they wait for the instructor to appear.
On this Tuesday morning, the instructor is Grace Ludolph, my mother. A genial woman by nature, she was soon trusted to lead fitness classes despite only being in the group for a few months. Before starting, the women stand in a circle and join their hands in prayer. Faith is a big part of the values that underscore the group, despite the women coming from varying religious backgrounds.
“Okay ladies. Let’s go!”
The class has started officially, and the women line up in neat, well-spaced lines, ready to get going. The music is high-octane and catchy, and soon the space is filled with the sound of cheers and laughter.
Pamela Slee, one of the founders of the group, says Fearless Fitness began organically in February 2021. She explains that the group started when she saw Helen Cupido, the other co-founder, running on a nearby field one day.
“Every day, there was a new lady asking, ‘can I join you?’. It was that simple. As more ladies joined, I said to myself, ‘this can work’.”
Cupido says after the women started running together, they explored other types of exercise as well. Members of the group took turns to teach various types of exercise, and the women even started going on excursions to exercise-friendly spots around Cape Town City.
“One day, Pam had these tights on that read ’fearless’, and we then said ‘okay, we should take that as a name!’. Afterwards, we went to Mr Price Sport and bought each member a pair of those tights. Now, when we go out as a group, the main priority [for us] is our workout. We do our workout and then we have fun afterwards.”
Giving back to the community
Most of the women in the group are over fifty. As their numbers grew and Fearless Fitness took shape, they started discussing new ideas and new ways to improve their health. Slee says they would like to register as a non-profit organisation and develop enough to be able to include community outreach as part of their activities.
“We also want to help other people. Last year, I asked the women to each bring in a small token for the elderly. There are a lot of people, especially in Manenberg, that are struggling. Some people can’t even buy themselves a bar of soap or a facecloth.”
Slee explains that each woman brought a facecloth, a box of soap, toothpaste, and a toothbrush. They boxed these goods as gifts for elderly people in their neighbourhood.
After they compiled the parcels, Slee realised that they did not have any organised way of distributing them. Luckily, one of the women who used to be in the group, directed them to a club for the elderly in the area, where they were allowed to distribute the parcels.
Slee says that the club’s short-term goals include getting fitness equipment and growing the club. She emphasises however, that their ultimate goal is to give back to their community.
“We want to do more this year for Manenberg and for our elderly. And there’s also a lot of children, young children, [that we want to help], so that’s what we want to create. We are still sitting on ideas, and we haven’t made decisions yet. But we’ve got a lot of ideas for now.”
A safe space for older women
There are few spaces on the Cape Flats that cater for older women and their fitness needs. Gym memberships are hardly cheap, and there are few gyms in areas like Manenberg. Safety is also often an issue so it is difficult for women to find secure places to exercise. This is perhaps why the Fearless Fitness group feels so much like a close-knit community.
For Godija Adams, being part of the club comes with a sense of belonging. A Muslim woman, she says that, even though the prayer sessions are of Christianity, she never feels like an outsider.
“They do prayers in the morning, but I don’t feel left out, because everybody needs prayer. Here, everything goes on the table to make sure everybody is happy. Nobody feels left out. We are a happy club. We come to the club happy every morning, and we go home happy.”
Adams explains that since she joined the club, her health and mood have improved immensely. She says the regular exercise puts her in a good mood and sets the tone for her days.
“When we are done here, we are still in that fitness mode. Everything goes lekker. We feel like cleaning our houses and hanging up the washing. Our minds are more active. Our bodies are more active. I mean, I’m turning 57. Who will say? We are all in the same age group and we are all active. “
To Brumilda Coetzee, getting healthy with the group inspired a sense of self-acceptance. She says that when she met the group, she had gained weight, and that deciding to join the group, changed her life.
“Ever since I met these ladies, they really changed my life completely. I’m a high blood pressure patient, and ever since I’ve been exercising, I’ve been healthier, eating better, and I could accept myself again. At first, I couldn’t, you know? But ever since I’ve been with the club, my thinking and my perspective has changed.”
Rosalyne Cloete is Cupido’s sister-in-law. She says Cupido was always asking her when she is going to join them, and she eventually gave in and went. At first, she struggled, but through perseverance, she was able to flourish.
“It was hard for me in the beginning, but I strove, and I committed myself. I had been retrenched, and it was in the midst of Covid-19 as well. Things were just not good. So, I said to myself, ‘I need to get out of my comfort zone’ and that is why I’m still here today. We all have our problems, but we are here, and we look out for one another.”