South Africa

Touring Soweto by bike: a Johannesburg township full of smiles

Loved the gorgeous smiling faces of the cheeky children in Soweto, touring Soweto by bike

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.

Touring Soweto by bike: Soweto beginnings

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.

We only just managed to avoid the worst of this storm during our awesome bike ride around Soweto, touring soweto by bike

We only just managed to avoid the worst of this storm during our awesome bike ride around Soweto

 

Touring Soweto by bike: Soweto and apartheid

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.

The late Nelson Mandela's house is now a major tourist attraction in the more wealthy part of Soweto, touring soweto by bike

The late Nelson Mandela’s house is now a major tourist attraction in the more wealthy part of Soweto

 

Touring Soweto by bike: Soweto today

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.

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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?

For all the smiling, friendly faces, there is still lots of poverty in Soweto, touring soweto by bike

For all the smiling, friendly faces, there is still lots of poverty in Soweto

 

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.

Touring Soweto by bike: 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)

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20 Comments

  • Reply
    Aleney de Winter
    September 24, 2017 at 12:44 am

    Fantastic photos. I love exploring Soweto last year, the people were divine!

    • Reply
      RoamingCo
      September 25, 2017 at 1:50 pm

      Couldn’t agree more. So many friendly faces.

  • Reply
    Eric Gamble
    September 24, 2017 at 1:56 pm

    I love that you did this. I had a similar experience in Trinidad and Tobago where I left the”white” areas to explore the black communities with my local surfing buds. It’s definitely crazy to see the disparities even within the black community areas. Hopefully, Soweto will continue to evolve and find a better balance

    • Reply
      RoamingCo
      September 25, 2017 at 1:51 pm

      Totally agree. In Soweto there were areas which were barely better than a slum and then others which were obviously quite affluent. Riding around on a bike was such a good way to interact with people as well.

  • Reply
    Emma McKay
    September 24, 2017 at 2:17 pm

    Looks like a really special look into the community. I spent a few months in South Africa back in 2010 but didn’t make it to Johannesburg – other than flying and transfers. It was definitely an oversight and I’d love to learn more about Soweto. Heading back to South Africa is on the agenda for 2018, will keep a bike tour in mind!

    • Reply
      RoamingCo
      September 25, 2017 at 1:52 pm

      Hey Emma, Jo’Burg gets such a bad rap but we really enjoyed it. Sure there are some very dodgy areas which you wouldn’t want to go to but it felt so authentic and friendly. We have another blog ‘the good, the bad and the ugly’ you should check out as well.

  • Reply
    Travel with Mei and Kerstin
    September 24, 2017 at 8:49 pm

    It’s sad to learn that the politicians don’t keep their promises, and let Soweto be in such a state (but that’s the case in so many countries…). Nevertheless, thank you for sharing this post, it’s definitely important that people know about the situation in Soweto. And biking through it is certainly a nice way to get to talk to locals, to learn more about both their culture and what’s really going on there.

    • Reply
      RoamingCo
      September 25, 2017 at 1:54 pm

      Hey there, absolutely no surprises that politicians don’t keep promises. In South Africa though this is being taken to a new level by Zuma and his cronies which is an absolute crying shame.

  • Reply
    carla
    September 25, 2017 at 1:22 am

    Your photos looks like you had a lot of fun! Those kids look really happy while riding with you.

    • Reply
      RoamingCo
      September 25, 2017 at 1:55 pm

      We had so much fun with the kids. Crazy little munchkins virtually launched themselves onto our bikes for a ride. Awesome!

  • Reply
    J Harvey
    September 25, 2017 at 4:06 pm

    It’s fantastic that you took the time to explore a township most likely not often frequented by tourists. I think it’s really important to understand all sides if we want to understand why a place is the way that it is. Looks like it was rather rewarding for you too! It also seems like it had big impact on you which is lovely!

    • Reply
      RoamingCo
      September 28, 2017 at 5:00 am

      Completely agree and thanks for reading. South Africa was a far more complex country than we expected and Soweto was a big part of that. On reflection our afternoon in Soweto did have a pretty big impact on us. Was an eye opener in many ways. Glad you liked the article!

  • Reply
    Kate
    September 25, 2017 at 7:07 pm

    What a great community, despite the frustration with the government. A bike tour is a great way to soak in the culture. I’m glad you got more than just a bike ride out of the deal.

    • Reply
      RoamingCo
      September 28, 2017 at 4:55 am

      Soweto is all about community. In the face of minimal government assistance all they have to rely on is each other.

  • Reply
    Victoria
    September 26, 2017 at 12:50 am

    What a great post! Seeing a city by bike is one of the best ways so you can enjoy things more slowly but faster than walking! I can’t wait to visit!

    • Reply
      RoamingCo
      September 28, 2017 at 4:54 am

      You really must visit. Jo’Burg always gets a bad rap but we rally liked it.

  • Reply
    Suruchi
    September 26, 2017 at 3:19 pm

    I am glad you did that. It is really nice to interact with the locals and get to experience their culture and to experience this biking is really a cool option. Look at the picture, children look so happy and innocent. Thanks for sharing this.

    • Reply
      RoamingCo
      September 28, 2017 at 4:53 am

      Thanks for reading guys. The kids were absolutely adorable. So much fun to hang out with

  • Reply
    Meagan
    September 27, 2017 at 3:06 pm

    I think it’s so interesting when you’re able to see sides of a country or city not typically or easily available to visitors, and that was obviously your experience, as well. Also, that bike ride with the kids looks like a blast 🙂

    • Reply
      RoamingCo
      September 28, 2017 at 4:52 am

      The tour is actually pretty accessible as it’s run out of a backpackers but I still think loads of people are just put off by Jo’Burg as a city. The kids were 100% gold!

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