Cycling Though Soweto on Mandela’s Weekend

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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  • Reply theconnoisseursofcreativity December 10, 2013 at 9:31 am

    Glad you had a great experience. Lebo is a childhood friend of mine and I visit the backpackers everytime I’m in South Africa. It’s a place where all classes of society break bread with one another. Lovely post

    • Reply 2summers December 10, 2013 at 9:39 am

      Ah, that’s so cool that you know Lebo. Unfortunately he wasn’t there when I went on Sunday. The backpackers was great though. Thanks for the comment!

      • Reply theconnoisseursofcreativity December 10, 2013 at 9:44 am

        Now that’s a shame:) meeting Lebo would have made your experience even better, he is a very humble guy. Compliments on the blog. Ps your Madiba and me post really touched me… How I miss home. Have a great day

  • Reply Meruschka (@MzansiGirl) December 10, 2013 at 9:38 am

    Lovely post Heather! Glad you got to do this at such a special time. So missing Jozi right now. Wish I was there with you all to celebrate Madiba’s life.

  • Reply therebellion101 December 10, 2013 at 9:49 am

    You know Heather I just got lost in this post!!! Last year I visited Hillbrow and Yeoville with a friend off mine, he owns Taste of Africa. When I got to the hiden corners of hillbrow and yeoville that’s when I actually relised that I’m not living. Cause I felt like I was in another country but yet in South Africa and I felt so embarrased as a South African that I didn’t know that there were such beautiful and warm people & places in my country. You see this post right here I very much relate to

    • Reply 2summers December 10, 2013 at 9:53 am

      Hi Eric, that’s very cool. I know Cedric from Taste of Africa — is he the friend you mean? My first tour of Soweto was through Taste of Africa. I also love Hillbrow and Yeoville.

  • Reply therebellion101 December 10, 2013 at 9:59 am

    Yes his a great friend of mine Cedric de la Harpe. He taught me a lot of things and showed me corners of Jozi that I never knew existed.

    • Reply 2summers December 10, 2013 at 9:07 pm

      Yes, he’s quite a character too!

  • Reply Justcallmegertie December 10, 2013 at 10:30 am

    What an amazing post. It looks like a great way to experience Soweto!

  • Reply Lani December 10, 2013 at 10:51 am

    Gorgeous pics…and overall nice post. You’ve given me something to think about, as far as touring particular cities or places like Soweto. I don’t like the idea of – say visiting a hill tribe in Northern Thailand – and taking pics. It has a human zoo quality to it. I suppose these township cities are different. But asking to take pictures of people can go a long way towards treating people – well, like people. Thanks again 🙂

    • Reply 2summers December 10, 2013 at 9:06 pm

      Yes, it’s a tricky dilemma. I think cultural exchange and learning should happen as often as possible and in every possible circumstance, but lots of people go into “tourism” situations like this with the wrong attitude. It’s really all about attitudes and intentions.

      • Reply Lani December 11, 2013 at 4:30 am

        I agree, well said. Thanks for posting 🙂

  • Reply Erin Archer December 10, 2013 at 12:13 pm

    Awesome! Very cool!

    Sent from Erin’s iPhone


  • Reply colin December 10, 2013 at 1:27 pm

    Thank you for the story. The pictures were amazing.

  • Reply Kathryn McCullough December 10, 2013 at 11:41 pm

    Looks like it was an interesting day. Congrats on your “ambassador” gig! I think that’s pretty damn cool!

    Hugs from Ecuador,

    • Reply 2summers December 11, 2013 at 9:23 am

      Thanks, Kathy. It was an interesting day. And…I got an email last night saying this post is going to be Freshly Pressed! First time in 2.5 years 🙂

  • Reply nick1074 December 12, 2013 at 12:35 am

    Really enjoyed reading through your site today.. Thanks for sharing, I will be back!

    • Reply 2summers December 12, 2013 at 9:33 am

      Thanks Nick, I appreciate that.

  • Reply iheartsiena December 12, 2013 at 11:03 pm

    Very interesting!

  • Reply awax1217 December 12, 2013 at 11:38 pm

    Well done. Quite interesting. Thank you.

    • Reply 2summers December 13, 2013 at 6:09 am

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

  • Reply stephgost December 13, 2013 at 12:43 am

    I got to your blog from Freshly Pressed and I really enjoyed reading it and looking at you photos. That chicken and veggie bunny chow looks amazingly good by the way 🙂

    • Reply 2summers December 13, 2013 at 6:10 am

      Thanks very much. The bunny chow was one of the many highlights of the day.

  • Reply Jean December 13, 2013 at 2:22 am

    I would tend to agree that to reduce the impression of “township tourism”, is to make an effort to buy local, greet people when appropriate and ask for permission if you really want that photo of that memorable person/group of people.

    Being white and from outside of S.A., makes it more dicey. Also for the tourist to dress ordinary. And yes, cycling makes a person more “grassroots” in reality.

    If people reading this post, could consider this: it’s no different than being a tourist in any North American city. However I ask myself would I want a stranger pointing their camera…at my parents shopping there? If they were part of the whole scene, not a bad thing. If it’s to catch them unguarded, yelling at someone…hm….

    From a Canadian-born cyclist, who had relatives living in the poorest areas of Toronto Chinatown.

    • Reply 2summers December 13, 2013 at 6:12 am

      This kind of tourism definitely requires a specific sensitivity. However, I’ve done quite a bit of it and my experience has been that 99%of the people I encounter along the way are very happy to have outsiders visiting their communities, want to be photographed, want to engage, etc. As I said in an earlier comment, it’s all in the attitude. Anyway, thanks so much for reading and commenting.

  • Reply aburrows6 December 13, 2013 at 2:58 am

    What a privilege to be able to do that, especially at this time. I enjoyed this post and appreciate the photos too.

    • Reply 2summers December 13, 2013 at 6:13 am

      Thanks! Yes, it was very fortunate that this tour was scheduled for this particular weekend.

  • Reply segmation December 13, 2013 at 6:54 am

    What a fun and awesome adventure! Thank you for sharing.

    • Reply 1africaid December 13, 2013 at 8:02 am

      Great read….I have been living in SA for 7years now and loving it, it is a beautiful country with awesome people. I am new to blogging as well so it’s brilliant to follow some well established posts.

      • Reply 2summers December 13, 2013 at 11:22 am

        Thanks so much. I’m glad you’re also enjoying life in SA. This is a special time to be here.

    • Reply 2summers December 13, 2013 at 11:25 am

      Thank you, and thanks for reading.

  • Reply Jackson Williams December 13, 2013 at 7:51 am

    Reblogged this on Homie Williams. and commented:
    Excellent stuff. — J.W.

    • Reply 2summers December 13, 2013 at 11:23 am

      Thanks for the reblog.

      • Reply LissaCaldina December 13, 2013 at 11:28 am

        Not a problem. It was a very nice article from you.

  • Reply barefootmedstudent December 13, 2013 at 6:53 pm

    This is pretty awesome. I’m sad to say that I’ve never been to Soweto even though I’ve lived in SA for 23 years. I need to get braver travel buddies. Didn’t realise MK was still around too… anywho, thanks for some great pictures.

    • Reply 2summers December 17, 2013 at 9:00 am

      Thanks! Well, I suppose you could get braver travel buddies. Or you could just come without them. Soweto is actually not scary at all 🙂

  • Reply kwasisei December 14, 2013 at 2:07 am

    Soweto…great natural pix. I should visit this place someday.

    • Reply 2summers December 17, 2013 at 8:58 am

      Thank you, glad you liked them.

  • Reply Rebecca December 14, 2013 at 2:31 am

    Congratulations on the new role! They made a good choice 🙂

    • Reply 2summers December 17, 2013 at 8:57 am

      Thanks Rebecca. I’ve been enjoying your trek posts!

  • Reply Robert Lowdon December 14, 2013 at 3:37 am

    Beer in a carton? Now that’s interesting.

    • Reply 2summers December 17, 2013 at 8:57 am

      I know, right? Very practical.

  • Reply genedeboise December 14, 2013 at 6:00 pm

    I hope to visit Soweto someday. Good post!

  • Reply Cycling Though Soweto on Mandela’s Weekend | Global Mindness December 16, 2013 at 4:21 am

    […] Cycling Though Soweto on Mandela’s Weekend. […]

  • Reply hismajesty2 December 18, 2013 at 3:17 pm

    Great stuff 2summers. I am a south african, durban-born who’s relocated to Joburg. I’ve been to Soweto many times and I appreciated your sensitivity and attitude comments. Your pics retained the people’s dignity.

    • Reply 2summers December 18, 2013 at 3:23 pm

      Thank you! That’s a really nice comment.

  • Reply everydayheights December 23, 2013 at 7:06 am

    Nice post. Really refreshing to see.

  • Reply Around the World in Eight Posts (and Four Photos) — Blog — January 28, 2014 at 6:02 pm

    […] to the other side of the world, Heather Mason, the blogger at 2Summers, recently led readers on a bike tour of Soweto, the South African township. As it just happened to be the weekend of Nelson Mandela’s […]

    • Reply 2summers February 19, 2014 at 6:27 am

      I think you are a wack-job and also I think it’s rude to post a link to your blog in my comment section without providing any comment with it. But I’m approving it anyway because others might find it interesting.

  • Reply bapaksubarjo June 5, 2014 at 12:23 pm

    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.)

  • Reply The Best Night Ever in Soweto – 2 Summers September 19, 2015 at 8:42 pm

    […] lamb stew, pap, spicy chakalaka, steak, and vegetarian curry — at the legendary Lebo’s Soweto Backpackers, followed by live music and poetry around the fire. Our group was preparing to leave. I shivered, […]

  • Reply An “Off the Beaten Path” Guide to Joburg – 2 Summers September 19, 2015 at 8:55 pm

    […] I also recommend the Soweto cycling tours offered through Lebo’s Soweto Backpackers. […]

  • Reply 10 New Discoveries in Soweto – 2 Summers September 21, 2015 at 9:04 pm

    […] been to Lebo’s Soweto Backpackers once before when I did their Soweto cycling tour. But I’d never hung out there in the evening. We had dinner at the backpackers and there was […]

  • Reply Bryon January 12, 2016 at 4:30 pm

    Hi Heather, my fiancee and I, who are living in London, are planning a weekend in Johannesburg. I just want to thank you for your posts of which I have been “binge-reading”. In particular, your enlightening and informative posts on Maboneng and Soweto.

    Thank you!

    • Reply 2summers January 12, 2016 at 4:39 pm

      Thanks so much, Bryon, that’s fantastic to hear. Best of luck on your trip and please let me know if you need any more recommendations.

  • Reply Hira July 26, 2016 at 3:52 pm

    Hello, We will be in JNB for a few days after our kruger safari and was thinking of taking one of these cycling tours through a township. I have not researched enough but would like to ask Soweto or Alexandra? Do you recommend one over the other?

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