Clients can learn about the modern history of South Africa by cycling around Soweto. // © 2011 South Africa Tourism
When I suggest to people that they should take a bicycle ride through Soweto when in Johannesburg, they look at me strangely. Soweto? Isn’t it dangerous? Isn’t it where they had all those riots years ago?
The answer to the first question is “no,” it is not as dangerous as you might think, especially now that tourism has taken root and begun flourishing. True, it used to be a kind of no-man’s-land, a township of 3.5 million people, mostly living in depressed economic conditions. But that is changing. In the last few years, especially since the end of apartheid in the 1990s, Soweto, like Johannesburg itself and other areas of South Africa, has turned the corner. Today, it is a mixed area, a combination of some grinding poverty, some new construction, businesses and homes. You can still see the dilapidated metal shacks that blight huge areas. But you can also see elegant new homes, some worth millions, albeit behind high security fences, with BMWs and other luxury cars parked in the driveways. And satellite dishes are everywhere, even on the poorest of dwellings.
As for the second question, the answer is “yes.” Soweto was the scene of the student uprising in 1976 that ended violently and marked the beginning of the end of that nation’s murderous apartheid policy. But, that, as they say, was then and this is now. And nowadays, Soweto is about business — chiefly tourism.
One of the youngest and most dynamic Soweto entrepreneurs is Lebo Malepa. He owns the bicycle tour company, Lebo’s Soweto Backpackers, which is based on a side street in Soweto and does a thriving business with tourists from South Africa and, increasingly, Europe and the U.S.
Malepa believes that you can see Soweto better from the ground or, in this case, the seat of a bicycle plying the hilly streets, than from an air-conditioned tour bus.
“You can’t really experience a place if you are in a tour bus or even in a car,” he said. “Only on foot or by bike can you feel a real connection to the local people.”
Malepa offers two-hour, four-hour or full-day bicycle tours of Soweto. Each tour is guided by one of his staff members, 15 in all, and the bikes are kept in shape by a mechanic and a series of trainees from the neighborhood.
In fact, his neighborhood provided the working capital, so to speak, for his business, which he began in 2003. Until then, Malepa was selling crafts outside a local museum but felt that tourists were missing something essential.
“I started using borrowed bicycles and had to share the profits with the owners,” he said. “I later bought three and, now, I have about 50 bikes. When we need more than 50 bikes, we rent from a youth group in the area that’s involved in a bicycle project. The money for the bicycle rentals goes directly to the youth program.”
Among the stops on the tours: Nelson Mandela’s former home on Vilakazi Street (fellow Nobel Prize winner Desmond Tutu also owns a home on this street), the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum (in honor of the 12-year-old boy who was killed in the 1976 uprising) and, at the end of the day, a stop at a shebeen, an unlicensed local bar. New restaurants are springing up daily, and the nightlife is vibrant. Prices for the tours start at $45 per person.
Malepa’s bicycle tours have been recommended by several major guidebooks, and last year’s FIFA World Cup certainly helped put Soweto on the map as a possible tourist destination. The opening and final matches were held at the FNB Stadium, or Soccer City, in Soweto.
Malepa, whose parents were active in the anti-apartheid movement, works out of his family home in Soweto’s Orlando area. The house also doubles as a small bed and breakfast catering to backpackers. The bicycles are lined up in racks outside the house.
He works closely with several tour operators in South Africa and arranges for pickup and delivery of clients at their hotels in one of his two six-seater Toyota vans.
Security is always a concern for people visiting South Africa, and that’s especially true of Johannesburg. Malepa addresses that concern head on.
“Walking around here is a lot safer than wandering Johannesburg’s city center,” he said. “Soweto is a very friendly place. But for those who don’t feel comfortable going alone, I am happy to act as a guide. We have bikes for hire, and we are always ready to accompany our guests for the day.”