Clubbed: On New Year's Day lifeguards were described as out of control. Picture: Kierran Allen

Durban - These images of lifeguards threatening bathers with paddles has raised concerns about their attitudes and training, following an incident earlier in the week in which witnesses claim they nearly drowned a dog tied to a bathing beacon.

These photographs were taken on New Year’s Day when lifeguards were trying to control thousands of bathers. Witnesses allege some bathers suffered injuries when they were hit on their head by the lifeguards. Durban officials say they have no such reports.

Durban resident Kierran Allen, prompted by reports of the incident involving the dog, sent photographs of New Year’s Day to The Independent on Saturday.

“Lifeguards were trying to control the crowds, who were not really out of control,” said Allen. “They were hitting people with oars. Some got hurt. One guy was bleeding after his head was split open.”

Allen said there was friction between beachgoers and lifeguards when the latter's’ boat beached.

“I saw a lot of police rushing towards them. I presume something happened.”

He said: “Even if crowds were stepping out of line, is that the way to deal with it? They are there to save lives, not to crack heads.”

Another beachgoer said the lifeguards were taking no prisoners.

“There was a group of boys playing with a football in the water and the next thing I saw the lifeguards whacking them with the paddles,” said the woman, who asked not to be named.

While the guards had twice told the boys to stop playing with the ball, she said their conduct left much to be desired.

“The boys scattered all over the beach, some clearly in pain. One boy was hit on the head,” she said.

The city’s deputy head of parks, recreation and culture, Christo Swart, said the city was not aware of the alleged attack on bathers.

He said when beaches are overcrowded, as is usually the case during the festive season, the city adopts “extraordinary” measures to patrol the bathing area.

In normal circumstances, he said, lifeguards are positioned on the platform giving them a bird’s eye view of people in the water.

“During the festive season, we have lifeguards on the platform, on the water’s edge, in the water and in rescue boats.

On New Year’s Day, Swart said, there were about 42 000 people in the water and a further 100 000 on the city’s central beaches.

“At times, it is extremely difficult to control bathers. Some who come to the beaches during the festive period are unable to swim.

“As a control measure, our lifeguards use the paddle to deter them from protruding into the deep waters,” he said.

However, he said at no stage did lifeguards use the paddles to assault holidaymakers.

“The oar is only used to reinforce the instruction that has been given to keep out from the deep water.

DA ward councillor Martin Meyer said the reports left him “very concerned”.

He said the party hoped that the city would give lifeguards the necessary training and support, “so that the unit can remain the outstanding unit we as a city have always been proud of”. He said the DA understood the pressure lifeguards worked under.

Meanwhile, lawyer Gavin Gow, the owner of the Jack Russell that lifeguards allegedly tried to drown this week, has laid a charge. It was alleged lifeguards tried to drown the dog and another Jack Russell tied by their leashes to a swimming beacon while Gow took a dip.

Gow was fined R300 for having dogs in a prohibited area and R250 for not having a leash on one of the dogs, which reportedly pulled free as the lifeguards dragged the beacon to the water.

The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals said it also intended to lay a charge.

“Under the Animals Protection Act one can be prosecuted for cruelty to animals and given a maximum sentence of three years’ jail or a R60 000 fine,” said spokeswoman Caroline Smith.

However, the eThekwini Municipality said it would not be taking any action against the lifeguards.

Spokesman Thabo Mofokeng said a municipal investigation found that that when the lifeguards reported for duty at 6am on Wednesday, 10 people were bathing and about three people exercising on the shore.

“They began placing bathing beacons to indicate the boundaries within which bathers could swim. While placing the beacons, they noticed two dogs were left unattended, with one of them being leashed to the beacon.

“They approached the group that was training to enquire if they knew who the dogs’ owner was. They even made an announcement on the public address system. But no one came forward.

“They then called Law Enforcement and after some discussion decided to take the dogs to the nearest SPCA.

“As they were preparing to leave with the dogs, a lady approached them and accused them of being abusive towards the dogs, demanding the dogs be released. Her high tone attracted the attention of the other bathers and that was when the owner of the dogs came forward.”

This version differs from witness accounts of the lifeguard dragging the beacon, with the dogs in tow, to the water and attempting to drown the one whose lease remained attached.

“Its poor head was underwater. Every time a wave came on, it was drowning in the inshore break,” said James Egan.

He said he asked the lifeguard what he was doing with the dog and whether he was drowning it. “He replied – well, it’s not your dog.”

Egan went on to say later, a French tourist who witnessed the incident, had been trying to give his statement to a police inspector.

“The lifeguard kept interrupting. He was so rude and arrogant.”

Egan described the lifeguard’s attitude as a classic case of being given a little bit of authority and abusing it. - Independent on Saturday