Riders are briefed before exploring Soweto. // © 2015 David DiGregorio
Feature image (above): Johannesburg should be included on any South Africa itinerary. // © 2015 iStock
Johannesburg, South Africa, is a vibrant metropolis of 4.4 million people, yet it is often overlooked by the time-crunched traveler. Those wise enough to include “Jo’burg” in their itinerary will most likely visit Soweto, an acronym for the city’s South Western Townships. In Soweto, travelers will encounter South Africa’s historically significant past. Visiting the neighborhoods that were crucial in the struggle to end apartheid provides a powerful perspective on how far South Africa has come in a relatively short amount of time.
There’s no better way to experience the townships than by bicycle, which offers a very different perspective of Soweto than that of a tour from behind the windows of a van. The area is actually composed of 32 individual townships with sometimes startling contrasts in wealth and living conditions.
Soweto was created as a subset of the city of Johannesburg and was designed to house the increasing number of black laborers working for the city’s white-owned companies. As apartheid took hold, a series of “Group Areas Acts” more explicitly defined where each race could live. Soweto became the country’s largest black-only township.
As South Africa struggled to free itself from the oppression of the apartheid regime in the 1970s, Soweto took center stage. The township played host to years of turbulent unrest, violent uprisings and a 1976 protest that saw police opening fire on children. This tumultuous past has since yielded a more stable Soweto that acts as a living monument to the history that made the country what it is today.
I chose Lebo’s Soweto Bicycle Tours, a local outfitter, for my cycling excursion. We began our exploration by riding through the informal settlements and along back roads that no car could traverse. This is a side of Soweto where chickens roam free, trash lines the sides of the roads and everything smells of fire. As we crossed into more developed areas, we biked past several “Mandela Homes” — affordable, modern subsidized housing — and children ran out to wave hello and dole out high-fives.
As we made our way through the township, our local guide would stop us from time to time to explain some of the history around us. Points of interest included a pop-up marketplace, the Hector Pieterson Memorial commemorating the so-called “child uprising” of ’76, and the former homes of Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu on Vilakazi Street.
A highlight of the trip is a visit to a local shebeen, or informal pub. These unlicensed drinking establishments played a key role in South Africa’s political history, often serving as meeting places for political dissidents. Today, you can still visit these shacks — often made of corrugated aluminum — that dish out no-frills traditional township fare and homemade beer served in a communal calabash pot. Be sure to say “ahh” after you take a sip so everyone knows you’re satisfied.
Lebo’s Soweto Bicycle Tours offers guests a way of seeing the real Soweto over the course of two-hour, four-hour or full-day bicycle tours. For general ground handling and tour guide services in Soweto and greater Johannesburg, JMT Tours is also highly recommended.