The Other Side: Biking Through a Township in Cape Town

Growing up in the 1980s as an American had its advantages. I have fond memories of the Smurfs, shirts with iron-on decals and big hair. It was also an interesting time to grow up politically, and I remember first hearing about South Africa as a youngster watching the evening news with my father. The news highlight reel was full of soldiers and mobs, repression and sadness. I was brought up not knowing a lot about the real South Africa, other than we weren’t supposed to like the government because of its downright evil policy of apartheid. Then the 1990s came and everything changed, but it’s hard for all of us to learn about the real South Africa, especially living so far way. From an American point of view we still don’t know a lot about this great country, and sadly many of the memories from those broadcasts still occupy our thoughts. That was one of my great missions in Cape Town, to learn about the modern South Africa and to share that with as many people as possible. Nothing helped me achieve that as much as the afternoon I spent biking around the Masiphumelele Township in Cape Town.

Ten years ago, the Cape Town based sustainable travel provider AWOL Tours began a unique partnership with the small non-profit Bicycling Empowerment Network (BEN). Working together, Dutch bikes were imported to South Africa and an unusual tour began, a biking tour of the Masiphumelele Township. The bikes are owned by dealers in the township and every participant in the tours rents the bikes from these local dealers. Since 2002, more than 3,000 people have participated in the program, employing members of the community and generating much needed revenue for local businesses and artists. But why is touring a township unusual or even something people want to do?

During the apartheid era black people were evicted from properties that were in areas designated as “white only” and forced to move into segregated townships. These areas were underdeveloped and the living conditions were, and are, not adequate for the needs of the residents. Masiphumelele Township began in the 1980s with only a few hundred people. But as apartheid began to unravel, the numbers grew. Today it’s estimated that nearly 40,000 people call the township home and although there are many cultures represented, the majority identify as Xhosa from the Eastern Cape.

“Watch out for cars and stay in a straight line,” our guide Vivian offered as last minute advice before taking off into the streets of Masiphumelele. Even though she is still new to the job, Vivian seemed like a pro as we navigated the chaotic streets; dogs and children jumped out of the way as we inexpertly barreled down the road. Like all of the bike guides, Vivian is from Masiphumelele and this job has helped her improve a lot of essential job skills both on bike and in the office. More than that though, she was eager to have us experience daily life in the township.

I’d seen photos of townships on TV and online, but nothing prepared me for the real thing. It was a strange mix of brick buildings and more creative structures serving as both homes and convenience stores. Before I could get a good look at the community though, we stopped for lunch at a local cafe. Well I say cafe, but it was much more informal than that. We stepped through a tin roofed building and found picnic tables and benches set up, the proprietor was smiling clearly anticipating our arrival. The food was cooked over an open flame in a brick oven next door, and the procession of crispy chicken and succulent sausages served with the starchy pap was a simple but incredibly delicious meal. I sat there drinking my Orange Fanta looking around and was met with a lot of stares. I felt conspicuous sitting there, taking pictures of my food like a good blogger, but someone clearly out of place. Everything about me screamed foreign and I wasn’t sure how I felt about that.

Without much fanfare, Vivian announced that her mother was waiting for us to visit. Her mother just didn’t want to meet us, she wanted to share her craft with us as well. Vivian’s mother is a sangoma, a traditional healer and an important person in the community. This wasn’t just a novelty though, there are more sangoma’s in South Africa than Western trained doctors and most people consult with sangomas in conjunction with more modern services for a holistic approach to health care. Sangomas are healers, diviners, protectors and the keepers of stories, traditions and myth. With all of this in mind, I carefully sat in the living room of the small house, not sure what to expect when drumming began and Vivian’s mom started to sing and dance. The rhythms were enchanting; I sat there unable to move, I could only look at her and wonder about the meaning behind the movements. Next to us several small kids showed up, singing along but obviously more interested in the foreigners in their midst. The cameras fascinated them the most, a recurring theme as we spent some time with the children of the township.

Masiphumelele Township

Kids are great, they don’t care about the same silly things we adults do and don’t have the hang-ups that plague modern life. They’re also curious as we learned when they started jumping on the backs of our bikes as we rode through the township. By the end of the day we all had our own kid, tagging along on the bike and curious to see photos of themselves. I usually have to ask people for permission to take their pictures, but that wasn’t a problem in Masiphumelele. Every kid wanted their photo taken, each trying to out pose their friends. It was touching to see how much fun they were having, how innocent they were. I hoped they would always stay that way, but I wasn’t sure.

While much of the township proper had brick homes, some even with yards, there was a lowland area that was different. It wasn’t like the other parts of the township, instead this area was built up by enterprising individuals over the years. To be honest, it was depressing. The shacks were shoddily constructed with bits of found wood and metal. Electricity was provided through splicing wires from a single electricity source; the cobweb of live, low-hanging wires was frightening at best. The area was swampy, and in addition to the constant threat of fire there was also a threat of flooding during the wet season. I wasn’t sure what to think. I felt like a voyeur. An over-privileged voyeur who would tour the township, take some photos and then leave. I felt guilty and wasn’t sure what to do about it.

Our last stop of the day answered my question. The Massive Lane preschool, or crèche as they’re called in South Africa, was my favorite stop of the day. Dozens of kids, all between 1-5 years old crowded the dark room of the school, each vying for our attention and of course our cameras. As I was playing with the kids, letting them climb all over me I saw a young boy in the corner, bawling his eyes out. I went over to see what was wrong, which only made things worse. Thinking of ways to calm him, I pulled out my iPhone, turned on the camera and switched the view to front-facing so he could see what he looked like. The crying slowed and then stopped all together as he stared in fascination at his own face. He was still cranky, but was also mesmerized by the technology, like any kid his age would be anywhere in the world. More than anyone else that day, those kids drove home the fact that they weren’t that different from kids I knew at home. They laughed, they sang, they were curious – overall they have normal kid personality traits. What’s different is their living situation and how they will grow up.

It was Friday afternoon and the traffic into the township was beginning to pick up as we climbed into the minivan and left. I looked back at the kids who we left there, waving us good bye and wondered for the thousandth time what their lives would be like and what I could do to help them. That’s the real benefit of this tour, not to fill a weird need to see the other side of life, but an opportunity to learn from some people we would otherwise never meet.

In the Xhosa language, Masiphumelele means “We Will Succeed.” Given everything I saw that day on my Dutch bike, I have no doubt they will.

Have you been to areas of extreme poverty? What did you think and do you think it’s right to tour these places?

By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer.

4 thoughts on “The Other Side: Biking Through a Township in Cape Town”

  1. Langa Township just outside of Cape Town has scenes similar to those shown above, but also displays incredibly more evidence of improvements being made to uplift the lives of residents. I highly recommend it.

  2. I feel like I have and I haven’t. I have been to poor areas, but I know there were much poorer places nearby…. not on the tourist trail.

    I would do a tour like this only if I felt the company was contributing to improving the lives of the community members, being respectful, and making it about learning.

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