April, 2017: I knew very little of Soweto before we came to Jo’Burg. I had vague impressions of a huge sprawling slum with questionable security and a dark past. At the same time we had heard that touring Soweto by bike was a must. If you wanted a more complete, more authentic understanding of South Africa this was something you needed to do. Normally I’m not super keen on voyeuristic tourism. But, the chance to see a different aspect of the rainbow country was too good to pass up. We had spent nearly three weeks in South Africa but to date had seen the more privileged white side of the country. We hoped that touring Soweto by bike would help us better understand the black side of the country.
Soweto stands for South Western Townships and has existed in one form or another as a black residential area in the south west of Jo’Burg since the early 1900’s. As the city grew and attitudes of the ruling white governments became more racially driven, the population of Soweto swelled massively. Whether through forced relocations or inevitable squatting of people with no where else to go, Soweto became a vast, sprawling area of high density living in usually awful conditions. Men were segregated from women and children and one tribe was segregated from another. Municipal services were virtually non-existent (this hasn’t really changed) and quality of life for the inhabitants was poor.
This situation and the ensuing tension only worsened through the 60’s and 70’s as the apartheid regime tightened the screws. The tension came to a head when the government tried to change the language used in schools as an alleged way to keep blacks, well, less educated. The language used was changed from people’s native language to Afrikaans, a language which was not widely understood. In June 1976 mass student protests erupted in Soweto which the police tried to quell with live ammunition. The protests and rioting continued for days, resulting in people dead, and nationwide and then worldwide coverage. These protests would signify a bit of a turning point in the struggle against apartheid. It would also cement Soweto’s position in the history of the country.
Fast forward to 2017 and instead of angry protests and gunfire we found laughing kids, smiling faces and curb side braais. It was a public holiday Friday, everyone seemed to be in party mode and we felt welcomed on every corner. We wondered if we would receive a different response if we were by ourselves but touring Soweto by bike with our awesome local guides it was gold. There were the gorgeous little kids who latched unselfconsciously onto our hands and clambered onto our bikes three at a time. There were the wrinkled old ladies who would wave with a big warm grin from there front step. There were the merry afternoon drinkers in the local shebeen (bar/canteen) who were keen to hear what we thought of their community. Everywhere we went people waved and shouted hello.
However, for all the happiness, warmth and laughter we still saw a lot of poverty and the imbalance of wealth. On one hand we saw brand new Porsches and fancy bars around Vilakazi street, Orlando West Desmond Tutu and the late Nelson Mandela. On the other hand we saw open sewage, corrugated iron shacks and decaying, looted apartments in no condition to house anyone. For all the happy faces, we also heard our guides’ growing frustration. Frustration at 20+ years of unfulfilled promises and now blatant corruption from the ruling African National Congress (ANC). Sure apartheid has gone but have the prospects of the masses improved enough or as much as they could have?
Our time touring Soweto by bike was indeed an eye opener. It definitely provided a look, albeit brief into a different side of South Africa. It highlighted the many contrasts and complexities of this awesome country. It was also an afternoon spent with some of the friendliest people of our whole trip. The above is by no means a comprehensive account of the township’s history or current day situation. Hopefully though, it gives you enough to want to visit and learn more yourself. Our guide felt that touring Soweto by bike is a perfect way for tourists and locals to come closer together. In doing so, an increased shared understanding of each other’s lives may help facilitate a better future for all.
The fine print:
- We did our bike tour through Lebo’s Soweto Backpacker’s which is an awesome looking, locally owned backpackers in the Orlando West area of Soweto. We didn’t stay there but in some ways wished we did to be more part of the Soweto vibe.
- Lebo’s offer a range of tours in Soweto which can be booked here. All prices included equipment (for the bike tours) and a tasty African style lunch. You can choose from:
- Touring Soweto by bike for 2 (R470pp), 4 (R580pp, this is what we did and can highly recommend) or 8 (R750pp) hours;
- Touring Soweto by tuk tuk tours of 2 (R430pp) and 4 (R620pp) hours; or
- Touring Soweto by a 3 hour walking tour (R370pp)