Cycling Soweto: Explore the city from the saddle

Posted on 1 May 2024

Braving the inevitable next-day side effects of a small saddle, and way too many years since he last sat on one, Ryan Enslin goes cycling through the streets of Soweto to find a sense of community in a place he least expected hope to thrive.

Joburg has a variety of cycle-based tour offerings, anything from food, to art and even graffiti tours. I think one of the best ways to truly explore a space is on foot; even better when that foot is applied to a pedal. Or two.

Cycle in Soweto offers a 2.5-hour tour of the local highlights in Soweto, guided by bona fide locals. Arriving for the tour, we received the custom safety briefing, since we were headed out to pedal amongst the hustle and bustle of day-to-day Sowetan life. Our guides for the tour were Pule Nthako and Thulani Masango.

READ: 10 things to do in Joburg before you die

The first stop was Orlando Stadium, home to the much-loved local soccer team of the same name. Key to exploring with a local is that things are put into perspective, places are framed in a time and space to enable a better understanding of that which you look at.

So, a soccer stadium becomes so much more than just a concrete structure housing adoring, ululating fans. Its history is shared, in this case, the then-iteration of the Orlando Stadium was intended as the meeting point to which the youth of 1976 were headed that fateful day in June. They never arrived, having been met by police and security forces of the apartheid state, intent on crushing a demonstration, at any cost.

Mere stones would meet live ammunition that day, and the rest is a sad part of our history.

After the much-welcomed stop at Orlando Stadium, enabling me to catch my breath, we once again mounted our steads and headed out in the general direction of the Soweto Towers. These towers are all that remain of the Orlando Power Station. Commissioned at the end of the second world war, the Orlando Power Station would go on to provide electricity to Joburg for more than 50 years.

Picture: Melanie van Zyl

Decommissioned in 1998, the cooling towers were retained and today are iconic to the Soweto landscape. Chat to Bongani from Cycle in Soweto as the cycle tour can be customised to include a stop at the towers, and a jump off them. Just make sure the bungee cord is attached.

Free-wheeling down a rather welcome downhill section of tar, while simultaneously dodging a tribe of goats, we reached Nomzamo Park informal settlement. Here we met Bongani Zitha, our guide for this section of the tour, a walk around the place envisioned by the Mother of the Nation, Winnie Mandela, during the late 1990s as temporary accommodation for those in need of housing. Sadly, in 2022 the area is still densely populated by people desperately awaiting the provision of basic housing as promised by the government all those years ago. And every subsequent election year since. But, here in Nomzamo Park, people live, play, pass matric, fall in love, get divorced, celebrate milestones and grow old.

A tour through an informal settlement, my first ever, has always worried me. Gawking tourists ogling people’s daily lives, taking pictures along the way and dispensing lack-lustre pleasantries to fellow humans they just can’t seem to connect with. A rare few even ask for permission to snap their shots. But this is the daily reality for many, 7 000-odd to be exact.

What encouraged me this time ’round was the sense of community at Nomzamo Park. Everything is shared, from money earned by the guides on tours through the community, to earnings from the sale of curios on the pavement outside. These proud people stand together. And share.

I met Sandiswa Myhoyho in her home, who allowed us to enter and shared what life in Nomzamo Park was like, all the while cleaning and wiping down her gas burner, which sparkled like a new R5 coin in the African sun. The only things shinier were her collection of cooking pots, proudly displayed on a stand just to the left of the burner. I mentioned to her that she must cook really tasty meals, based on her fancy pots. She shared a hearty laugh with me.

The remainder of our tour included an impromptu stop at the Soweto Gold Brewing Company, from whence the famous Soweto Gold craft brew stems. Plus a few other variants which we sadly don’t see so regularly in retail outlets.

A stop along Vilakazi Street, complete with more flashing electronic billboards than I could count as I mustered the effort to keep the breath of life flowing through my lungs, would see the tour start to wind down. Information was shared about both the Tutu and Mandela homes along this street as well as the fatal corner where Hector Pieterson was shot in 1976.

Hector Pieterson Memorial in Soweto

Picture: Ina96/Wikimedia Commons

We ended the tour at the Hector Pieterson Museum and Memorial, noting the line of grass and trees that led to the corner where he would make his mark on the history of South Africa. Greeting new friends I had made on the tour, the sound of Sandiswa’s laugh at my comment on her pots resounded in my head as I made my way to the car.

And this filled me with hope for our country, based on a simple engagement with a fellow South African.

Follow more of Ryan’s adventures in and around Joburg here.

ALSO READ: 6 things to do in Parys, the Free State’s adventure capital

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