“In Soweto we are trendsetters. People watch us and they follow what we do,” our guide Tanbo told us before we headed out on a tour of the Johannesburg township.
Like all of the Soweto Bicycle Tour guides, Tanbo grew up in the SouthWEstern TOwnship and is clearly proud of her roots. “I don’t just like my job, I love my job,” she said as we put on our helmets. I did briefly wonder whether she might regret this statement after she’d seen me in action on a bike, but nevertheless her pride for Soweto is justified when you consider its residents both past and present. Over the years the township has been home to anti-apartheid political activists such as Walter Sisulu and Robert Sobukwe and lays claim to having the only street in the world where two Nobel Peace Prize winners – Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu – lived. Singer and civil right activist Miriam Makeba “Mama Africa” also had a home in Soweto and her protégé Abigail Kubeka still lives there. Before beginning her tour Tanbo taught us the Sowetan ‘peace, love and happiness’ handshake before breaking into a version of the song Mbube (more commonly known as The Lion Sleeps Tonight) which was written by another former resident Solomon Ntsele.
Our tour was run by Lebo’s Soweto Backpackers, where we were based for a couple of days before beginning our South African road trip (#SAroadtrip). The hostel officially opened its doors in 2003 but prior to that owner Lebo has already been welcoming visitors to his family home since 1999. Over the years the hostel has helped to create strong links between tourists and the community and now runs a youth club and hosts an annual music festival.
After a brief introduction into pleasantries we could use during our bike ride – it seems that “sharp sharp” is the must-know phrase as it can be used as a greeting, a farewell and for agreement – we set off to one of the informal settlements in Soweto. The area used to be known as the Men’s Hostel and was created for the male workers who moved to the city to work in Johannesburg. Women were only allowed to live on the site from 1994 and facilities are still very basic. Many of the buildings were made from corrugated iron, residents shared communal toilet blocks and water ran down some of the streets due to lack of drainage. Mothers went about their daily business carrying wide-eyed babies strapped to their backs with blankets, while gaggles of small children stopped kicking their football to laugh and wave at us as we passed.
Following Tanbo’s lead we crept into a local shebeen (drinking den) and sat opposite the glassy-eyed locals staring into the fire, before sitting on wooden benches in a small shack to eat a traditional snack of cow cheek and pap (maize) which we rolled into balls with our fingers.
On our return to the more “middle class” area of Soweto, it was interesting to see the different ways in which residents have adapted their houses. When the black population of Johannesburg was first moved to this area of the city during apartheid they were given identical houses which they were unable to own. However in 1994 Nelson Mandela changed the law in order to allow people to own their homes. Over the years those with regular incomes have enhanced their houses, painting them bright colours and adding unique features – among my favourites were two Greek gods as tall as men guarding a doorway.
Outside the Hector Pieterson Museum Tanbo told us the story of the Soweto uprising which led to the eventual downfall of the apartheid regime. On 16 June 1976 police opened fire on marching students who were protesting about changes to the school syllabus. Many died that day, including 13-year-old Hector Pieterson who became the subject of an iconic image when a photograph by Sam Nzima of the boy being carried by another student, while his sister ran next to them, was published around the world. Olive trees, which signify peace, now line the street where the children lost their lives in the fight for equality.
From there our tour took us to Nelson Mandela’s old home, now a museum. During our visit the former president was in hospital but the African people’s love and respect for him was very clear.
This area of Soweto was home to the tour groups and many of the locals use it to their advantage, setting up souvenir stalls and performing raps and songs to entertain the tourists. At our rest stop a double-jointed man stood in front of our tables twisting his body into contortions which made the group wince. An old man who had stopped to watch laughed and told me: “I work and he doesn’t but he earns more money in a day doing that.” When I joked that he should start practising, he chuckled to himself: “I’m too old; I’d rather die at my work.”
On the journey back to the hostel we were chased by children the whole way, who ran from their gardens and jumped up from their games to shout “hi” and “bye”. As a somewhat less than proficient cyclist I was terrified that I would knock one of them over as they dodged excitedly between our bikes and I couldn’t even let go of the handlebars to high-five the little hands which stretched out to us. So instead I cycled through screaming and shouting: “Don’t touch me!” which, of course, began a whole new game of chase the silly tourist.
Back at the safety of Lebo’s, where I finally managed to arrive without injuring a child, we tucked into a kota – a hunk of bread hollowed out and filled with a bean stew – and reflected on our first morning in South Africa. Already it had been such an eye-opening introduction to the country. In just a few hours we’d touched on the struggles of the past, witnessed the hope for the future and discovered the kindness and sense of fun of the African people. Soweto is not perfect by any means; poverty and crime continue to live side by side with ambition and success. But in a place which has seen the worst of human nature, it has also seen the best of it.