A Cycle Around Soweto

Hector PietersonSINCE beginning my trip in February, I had intentionally put on the long finger anything that resembled a touristy pursuit, both to allow for a primary focus on my research and to save all the fun stuff for the arrival of one of my dearest friends in the world who was joining me for the final week of my trip.

My former housemate Lauren, who now lives in the UK, had mentioned to me on Whatsapp a few days after I arrived that she had always thought it would be nice to visit South Africa.

“What better time than now?” I had asked, and after a bit of haranguing on my part, she had booked the flights. The final week would be a perfect bookend to a period that been dominated by often frustrated attempts to charm politicians, diplomats, military generals and archivists in three different countries. Politics would be put on the backburner for one week, as we became a pair of regular tourists visiting Joburg.

Anyone who has been here, though, knows that this aspiration is somewhat unrealistic as one can never get too far from politics in South Africa. In fact, my most memorable activity from our week as tourists was a visit to a location that was the site of one of the most significant political events in the country’s history.

While a breath-taking safari drive around Pilanesberg National Park to see lions, hippos, rhinos, giraffes and crocodiles ran a close second, the highlight of my week was a four-hour cycle around the township of Soweto, just south of Joburg.

I knew very little about Soweto before taking the bike tour with Lebo’s Backpacker Hostel, other than it being a township built for non-whites on the edge of Johannesburg as well as being the flash point for uprisings that would ultimately play a pivotal role in the demise of the Apartheid regime.

We cycled on a Monday, which meant that Lauren and I had a fantastic guide named Linda all to ourselves for the tour. Unlike the Lindas you are likely to come across in Ireland, our Linda was a guy and he kick-started the tour by pointing out that he was not, in fact, a beautiful woman but a man, just so there wasn’t any confusion. He had a great sense of humour, and even consoled me when I struggled to find a helmet to go over my mallet of a head by saying that they had special big helmets for people with big ideas.

Our first leg of the cycle took us up to the top of a small hill that overlooked the backpackers’ hostel and provided a good bird’s eye view of Soweto. There, we laid down the bikes and Linda taught us how to say hello to passersby in the Zulu language (‘sanibonani’). He also taught us the meaning of a phrase I had heard many times but was uncertain of how to interpret, ‘sharp sharp’ (pronounced ‘shop shop’ in a South African accent) which means ‘all is good’. Finally he taught us the significance of the South African three-part handshake, the practice of which I had already picked up from bidding farewell to Uber drivers but without an awareness of what it meant.

“Peace, love and unity” Linda said for each of the three stages as he performed the handshake with me, which starts like a regular shake, moves temporarily to an arm wrestle hold and then shifts back to the starting position. Then Linda asked us to scan all around the horizon while he explained the origins of Soweto. He told us that after the discovery of gold in the then small town of Johannesburg in the 1800s, people flocked to the area in their droves to obtain work in the mines. Initially the people who came lived in multiracial neighbourhoods despite the preference of the government of the late 19th century to separate people according to their race.

However, at the start of the 20th century an outbreak of the bubonic plague occurred and the government laid most of the blame at the feet of the African workers in the area, forcing them to move out of Johannesburg to the South West into townships (thereby creating the SOuth WEstern TOwnship). Millions of non-white South Africans would end up being born and raised in Soweto and many of them still make a living by travelling in and out to Johannesburg every day for work. The population of the township, Linda continued, is hard to estimate because it changes so much. Depending on the time of year and the economic situation in the area, it can fluctuate between 1.5 million and 3.5 million people.

From our perch, Linda was also able to point out what to our uneducated eyes looked like regular hills that were located between where we stood and the huge towers in downtown Joburg. There was nothing regular about them though, they were in fact part of an artificial landscape, mounds constructed using the debris and rubble that was dug up when gold was at its most plentiful under the ground in the area. Today, they are known as ‘Apartheid’s blinkers’, because of the widespread belief in the area that they were strategically located to block the view of the disadvantaged satellite city from the hub which it serves. Despite the marginalisation of the area and its people – or perhaps because of it – the residents of Soweto, who were drawn from all over the country and beyond, developed a strong sense of identity. In fact, Linda told us that, just like many other people from his locality, he considers himself a Sowetan first and a South African second. He clearly took great pride in telling us the Soweto is the only place in the world that can boast a street on which two Nobel Peace Prize winners have lived, President Nelson Mandela and Bishop Desmond Tutu. It was also home to many other Struggle stalwarts who fought to achieve equal rights for all South Africans over the decades.


The two hills to the right of centre are ‘Apartheid’s Blinkers’, with the tall buildings of Johannesburg in the background. A third ‘blinker’ used to entirely restrict the view of the City from Soweto but was removed in recent years.

With the roadside history lesson over for now, we jumped back on the bikes and followed Linda on to a dirt track that took us into the heart of a neighbourhood of basic houses with iron sheeting roofs. He showed us the communal outdoor taps that are used by the communities, as many of the homes do not yet have running water. A lady fetching water from the pump waved at us as we cycled by. I asked Linda as we cycled through how we, as visiting outsiders, are perceived by the residents of Soweto.

“90% of people that you will meet here are very happy to see you and they will probably say hello to us as we cycle by,” he answered. “They want people from outside to come and see our home and get a fuller picture of what life is like in South Africa. There are some people that might ask you why you are here but there is no need to worry about them.”

We stopped at one of the many tuck shops that seemed to be on every street in the area. Linda bought us each a fat cake, a traditional South African delicacy that consists of deep-fried bread dough. For one rand each, you got a fat cake and a slice of cheese, which you would insert into the cake after tearing an incision in the side. They were delicious and I’m glad they aren’t popular in Ireland because I’d probably become a fat cake myself if they were readily available back home.

On our way from the tuck shop to some roadside market stalls, we met some young kids who stopped us to say hello. Linda explained that they were under the age of 5 since they were not in school and because childcare was not available while their parents were at work, many very young children walk throughout the neighbourhoods during the day. The kids conversed with us through Linda, as they only spoke Zulu, and even asked for a photo before we left. Linda said it would be fine to take a picture but, even if they were requesting it, I didn’t feel comfortable taking photos of a child without their parent’s permission, no more than I would in Ireland. We settled upon a handshake instead.

After visiting the former home of Nelson Mandela and the current home of Bishop Desmond Tutu on Vilakazi Street, we next visited the Hector Pieterson Monument. Pieterson was the first victim in the Soweto Uprisings of 1976, which were triggered by the insistence of the Apartheid regime that children would learn half of their school subjects through the medium of the Afrikaans language. In a system that was already very heavily weighed against non-white children, making them learn in a language which most of them would be barely familiar with was the trigger for protests. Police opened fire on 10,000 students on the first day of protests in June 1976, and 12-year-old Pieterson was the first to die. The image of 18-year-old Mbuyisa Makhubu carrying him away, while Hector’s sister ran next to them, was published around the world the following day and became an iconic representation of the evil of Apartheid. For his crime of having featured in the famous image, holding a fatally injured child whom he did not know, Makhubu was persecuted by the Apartheid security forces and had to flee South Africa soon after, never to return.

The monument itself is a poignant dedication, not just to Hector Pieterson, but to all those who died in the subsequent uprisings, which saw schools in Soweto and elsewhere in South Africa close for the following two years. There is some dispute over the death toll but most estimates would say that somewhere in the region of 600 people died in the two years of protests and government clampdowns that followed. Many of those who died were teenage activists, who had taken it upon themselves to organise, with little approval from their teachers or parents, against injustice and institutional marginalisation.

The monument consists of a rock pool, in which the image of Hector Pieterson’s body being carried away by Makhubu sits. The water pours down from the rock pool over the front of the monument, which carries the message ‘To honour the youth who gave their lives for freedom and democracy’. From there, it flows along cracks in the ground under the public’s feet and pours into a separate water feature on the other side of the green. Linda told us that the water represents the tears of all those whose lives were affected by the government’s reaction to the protests, the water running through the cracks represents the blood of those who died and the rocks represent the only weapons the students had against the heavily armed Apartheid police when the uprisings began. Right next to the memorial is a museum, which also bears Hector Pieterson’s name, where you can view photographs, media reports, videos, personal accounts, placards and many other artefacts related to the tragic episode in South African history.

The monument and museum inspired similar emotions of anger and sadness that I had felt when visiting the Apartheid Museum in Joburg or reading any accounts regarding the systematic injustices suffered by non-white South Africans under Apartheid. It is all the more affecting for having occurred during my lifetime, much harder to relegate to the status of being a chapter in history which bears little connection to the world that I now occupy. For all the problems that South Africa has, and it has plenty, it’s still amazing to me that the country didn’t descend into all out civil war or even ethnic cleansing, as occurred in several other African states with a history of ethnic-based repression.

Next, Linda took us to see a local secondary school, one of many in Soweto. We didn’t venture on to school property but some teachers did come out to the gate to welcome Lauren and me to the area and poke fun at us for wearing shorts and t-shirts in weather that South Africans consider wintry. In many respects, the school seemed similar to those back home, with children forming circles with their friends throughout the yard, various different games taking place and high pitched conversations echoing off the school walls. In other ways, it was quite different, with murals painted on the buildings, warning of the peril of AIDS and how best to avoid it (abstention, faithfulness and protection). The school grounds also featured a statue of a policeman slapping handcuffs on a child, as a warning to the students of what awaited them if they pursue the life of a ‘tsotsi’, which roughly translates to a township gangster. We spoke with Linda about schooling in South Africa, in particular the huge number of languages that children generally learn. In addition to their own tribal dialect that they will have grown up with, children learn English and at least two other languages, from a selection of other tribal tongues and Afrikaans. Linda told us that, as a result of schooling and work, he now speaks nine languages fairly well. I told him that this reminded me of the South African comedian and host of the Daily Show, Trevor Noah, who is also a polyglot. Linda seemed a little surprised that I had heard of the comedian – who is massively popular in South Africa – and told us that we were standing only a few blocks away from where he had grown up in Soweto.

With our trip nearing an end, Linda brought us back to Lebo’s Hostel where we had started. There, we got a delicious meal of beef stew, cooked to local standards and accompanied by umqombothi, a slightly alcoholic beverage, traditionally drank by Xhosa men (although made by the women) in a communal setting, such as the circle in which we sat with other cyclists who had recently returned from a separate tour.

What we had seen for the previous four hours hadn’t been a feast for the senses in the same way as seeing a spectacular mountain range or an ocean is, but to my senses it was better. Soweto was a creation of a sadistically unjust system, a home for those who up until so recently were deemed second-class citizens. Today, the remnants of that system are still very much evident to anyone that visits the area but there is also so much to admire, even aside from the fact that it has produced Nobel Peace Prize winners, some of the world’s most famous entertainers and many more accomplished South Africans that I haven’t listed here. On almost every street we cycled down, strangers waved and greeted us like friends; there was a sense of community and togetherness despite such scarcity. Any locals we spoke with wanted us to learn and understand their history, even as the nation’s story continues to play out and those same people continue to bear much of the same burden as their parents and grandparents.

Societal ills don’t get cured overnight, or over a decade for that matter. South Africa in many ways is still a work in progress, but in Soweto we got a brief glimpse into just some of the resilience, endeavour and compassion that this typical, albeit huge, township has to offer.



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