As an American of a certain age, the word Soweto does not conjure up images of bike tours. Instead what pops into my mind is poverty and violence when I think of the largest Township in South Africa. The reality of course is a different thing and the best way to experience the true and modern face of Soweto is by a locally led bike tour.
The South West Townships, or Soweto, outside of Johannesburg have been around for a long time and will most likely be around even longer. Home to more than 1 million people, Soweto is the only place in the world where two Nobel Peace Prize winners once lived on the same street (Nelson Mandela and Bishop Desmond Tutu) and it’s of course where the Soweto Uprising of 1976 occurred. These mass protests had an incredible effect though, afterwards the world began to see the realities of the apartheid system and resistance leaders within the country began to mobilize and train in new and different ways. This all I knew, and it was with this historical lens that I expected to see Soweto. But the township of the 1970s and 1980s is most definitely not the Soweto of today.
The massive Orlando Towers, old power plant stacks now painted in outrageous designs, seem to be a constant companion as one explores Soweto. The township is huge and the prospect of exploring it on bike a bit daunting, but our leader for the day instantly inspired confidence. A young guy, he was barely a toddler when Mandela was released from prison, but like everyone I met in South Africa he has a fierce understanding of history and his place within it.
I expected to see extreme poverty and scenes of sadness. Poverty I saw, yes, but I also saw plenty of people doing just fine, and sadness? I didn’t see much of that. Even exploring some of the poorest parts of Soweto, everyone seemed excited to share their stories. Sitting inside an old shack made of corrugated metal, sharing homemade beer from a paper carton one gentleman, easily 30 years my senior looked at me dead in the eyes and said, “You are welcome here.” I sensed that was an important moment, although I couldn’t particularly tell you why. I sensed it was an acceptance of my presence, yes, but even more so an appreciation that I was there at all.
The bike I so poorly propelled took me through vacant lots full of garbage, past active preschools with children who erupted into song when they saw us and thriving middle class suburbs. It was the world in miniature, all lots of life and all personalities, each of them calling the sprawling Township home. I wondered to myself why some chose to live there, because it was obvious they had a choice. Then that word came back to me, home. This was their home and like their parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles they are doing what they can to make it a great place to live. Pretty basic when you think about it; isn’t that what must of us are in the process of doing?
I imagine many tourists to Johannesburg probably don’t choose to explore Soweto by bike, to see the Township in an intimate and personal way. But they should. They need to see what they expect to see, people living in unincorporated sections and passing the day by gambling. But they also need to see the houses with well-manicured lawns and kids laughing as we pass by their school. You see, Soweto isn’t a stereotype, it’s not one thing or the other; it’s a community, it’s all of these things bundled into one.
Before leaving that afternoon we stopped at a local restaurant across the street from where Nelson Mandela used to live. The fare was decidedly traditional, meats and sauce served over the delicious and starchy pap. It is a touristy part of the Township and the patrons reflected that demographic but I was so happy to see them all there. There they were, enjoying a beer, eating some pap and learning to love South Africa in a way that can only be accomplished through living it. That was my favorite part of biking through Soweto, biking alongside locals enabled me to actively engage instead of prancing around like a voyeur. It let me see what modern South Africa is all about, a jigsaw puzzle where a piece always seems to be missing, but an image that you love anyway.