I’ve been invited to be a Gauteng Tourism Authority ambassador. I don’t think I’ve ever been an ambassador for anything before so this is pretty cool. It basically means that I get to do some fun things around Gauteng Province (the province where Joburg is) and tell you about them. So here goes.

The first task of my ambassadorship was to visit Lebo’s Soweto Backpackers and take a cycle tour around Soweto, which is great because I’d been meaning to do this forever anyway. I feel like I don’t go to Soweto enough and this past weekend was the perfect time to go, as Nelson Mandela lived in Soweto and I was keen to see how people were celebrating his life there.

Kids at Lebo's

Kids at Lebo’s Soweto Backpackers.

The afternoon started with lunch at Lebo’s, which consisted of the most delicious bunny chow I’ve ever eaten. I don’t know exactly what was in it but I wanted to eat about three more. Lebo’s seems like a fun place to stay — worth checking out if you’re visiting Joburg and want to spend a night or two in Soweto.

Bunny chow

The most delicious chicken and veggie bunny chow I’ve ever eaten. 

Evil bird

Don’t be deceived: this pretty bird is a feathered ball of evil. He kept jumping onto the table while we were eating, occasionally emitting scary chicken-growls. (I guess he wanted our food, although this would make him a chicken cannibal.) All part of the backpacker experience.

After lunch we went outside and met Tshepo, our cycling guide, chose our our bikes, and set off for a tour around the township.

Taking pics on bike

Crystal of the blog Joburg’s Darling (right) and her friend Sarah (left) stop to take photos of kids during the ride. This is the only shot I took of people actually riding bikes during the bike tour. It’s not easy to take pictures and ride a bike at the same time.

I did a pretty comprehensive tour of Soweto a couple of years ago. I’ve also done a cycling tour in Alexandra Township, which was similar to this tour in many ways but also very different, as Soweto and Alex are really nothing the same. (Jeff, the guy who does the cycling tours in Alex, worked at Lebo’s for a while before opening his own business.)

Anyway, you can check out those posts (links above) for some narrative on cycling/township tours. I won’t repeat it all here. Or just look at the pics below.

People in Soweto

Soweto on a Sunday.

People outside shebeen

Passing the time.

Joburg beer

Drinking traditional beer in a shebeen (informal bar). I tasted the beer. It wasn’t horrible.

Cow head

Roasted cow head, served with salt, chilli, and pap (cornmeal porridge). I tasted this too and enjoyed it marginally more than the beer.

Peaking kids

Little spies.

I’d like to say a quick few words about “township tourism”. I’ve had several conversations/debates recently about whether or not it’s appropriate for tourists to visit poverty-affected areas — like Soweto, Alexandra, and Hillbrow — on organized tours. Here’s my take: I approach tourism in Soweto or Alex in the same way that I approach tourism in Cape Town, or London, or Washington D.C., or Mumbai, or anywhere else. Soweto is a tourist attraction in the same way that New York City is. It’s an interesting place with interesting stories to tell.

That said, I think it’s important to be culturally sensitive when visiting a place like Soweto as a tourist. When I go on tours like this, I go with the mindset of a visitor or guest, not as an onlooker. I try to experience the culture, rather than just looking at it. I take photos when I feel that it’s culturally appropriate to do so, and when I feel confident that my subjects are okay with being photographed. (Usually this means asking for verbal permission before taking a shot, although not always.) And if at all possible, I choose tours that are run by locals who live in the area I’m visiting.

Okay, back to the cycling tour. After an hour or two of cruising around we headed to Vilakazi Street, where Nelson Mandela once lived. Our experience on Vilakazi Street was obviously nothing like it would have been if we’d taken this tour on a “normal” day. There were hundreds, probably thousands, of people on the street, celebrating Mandela in a thousand different ways. I felt lucky to be there.

ANC Beetle

Volkswagen Beetle on Vilakazi Street, painted in ANC colors.

The coolest thing happening on Vilakazi Street, at least when I was there, was the group from Umkhonto we Sizwe — the armed wing of the ANC, also referred to as the MK — marching up and down the street. These guys were bad-ass and I was completely in awe.

MK marching

Bad-ass MK marchers. I didn’t realize that this group still exists.

MK and kids

It seems a little weird that kids were involved in this march, but whatever. They are bad-ass too.

About 15 minutes after we reached Vilakazi Street, the heavens opened. We waited inside a restaurant for a while hoping that the rain would stop. It didn’t. So our little group trudged through the rain, got back on our bikes, and took a very soggy ride back to Lebo’s. I insisted on a group photo before everyone dispersed.

Group pic at Lebo's

Our damp tour group, left to right: Sarah, Crystal, Tshepo (our guide), Brad, Levon, Savanah, me, and Joleif. (Apologies to the Lebo’s staff member who shot this for me. I forgot to get her name.)

Thanks to Lebo’s and Gauteng Tourism for the fun day. And RIP Mandela.

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