Soweto Bicycle Tour

This post was pre-scheduled to publish while we are off on our self-drive safari

While staying in Joburg, we decided to spend some time in Soweto. Soweto is outside and to the southwest of Joburg. Soweto in fact is the name for the southwestern townships- the cities populated by the black population of Joburg during apartheid. It began during the 1940s when the black settlements outside Joburg were destroyed by authorities. The people were forcibly moved into Soweto.

Soweto gained its fame during the 1970s when it played a crucial role in the struggle against apartheid. It is also well known as the home of Nelson Mandela before he went to prison.

One of the best ways to see Soweto is to take a bicycle tour offered from a local hostel. We decided, despite it being a little pricier than we hoped, to do it. We were able to pick a bike (we both chose red cruisers) and, with a local guide, we headed out into the city. Soweto was really like many other cities around the world. There were some areas with clean, comfortable looking bungalows but also areas of abject poverty: people living in shacks with only shared bathroom facilities. In these areas, there was much trash and running sewage that we had to pick our way carefully over.

The people, in all areas, were unbelievably friendly. They all continually waved, calling out to us and welcoming us to Soweto. They seemed very proud of their free city and happy to share it with us. The children were adorable, running up to us hoping to give us a high five as we rode past. Many times the kids shouted for us to “shoot” them. We were a bit taken aback until we realized what they wanted was for us to take a picture of them.

The tour wound through the many areas of town until we reached Vilakazi St. Here we stopped to reflect on the Hector Pieterson Memorial. In 1976, students of Soweto came together to protest the use of Afrikaans in their schools. There was a movement by the apartheid government to make Afrikaans (the language of the white Afrikaaners) the only language used in black schools. Students did not read or write in Afrikaans, so they wished instruction to be in English. During the large protests, police opened fire into the crowd, killing many, including the young Hector Pieterson (only 13 years old). This event led to nationwide demonstrations, mass arrests, and riots which took cost many lives. Our guide also explained that this lead to a famous picture, one of a student heroically carrying poor Hector to safety. He explained that this photo was spread on an international stage, helping to let the rest of the world know what was happening here in South Africa which helped bring new support and pressure on the apartheid government to change. It was a beautiful memorial, and we were able to spend a bit of time reflecting.

Also on Vilakazi St, we visited the old home of Nelson Mandela, which has now become a museum. A little farther down the road is the house of Desmond Tuto, making this street the only one in the world to host two Nobel Peace Prize winners. We did not see much of Desmond Tuto’s house as were told that it is actually still his Joburg residence, though he spends most of his time in Cape Town.

We found it interesting also that Vilakazi St has blossomed into a true tourist locale with large, hip restaurants and bars which look much different than the area surrounding.

At the end of our tour, we were treated to umqombothi (the q sound is actually a click which makes this a very fun word to hear and very difficult one for us to say) which was a traditional beer served in a shebeen during apartheid. It was illegal for black people in Soweto to drink anything except beer in government established places. A shebeen was where people continued to make and serve their own traditional beer. It was very interesting – a milky white color and a sour taste. It was also drunk in a very traditional way, everyone sharing from one cup, or calabash. We sat in a circle and when it was our turn to drink we had to assume the traditional stance, which was kneeling for girls and crouching, one foot slightly in front of the other, for boys.

We very much enjoyed our tour, and learned quite a lot. We would definitely recommend it for anyone getting a chance to visit Joburg.


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