As everyone in South Africa knows, we’re still in the midst of a pandemic and our national borders are still closed. This means no international tourism. While this extended travel ban is detrimental to the South African tourism sector, the ban has created new opportunities for locals to explore their home city/country.
On Saturday I went cycling in Soweto on a tour with Lebo’s Soweto Backpackers, and everyone on the tour (except me) was South African and from Gauteng province. It felt strange exploring Soweto’s tourism hotspots with so few other tourists around — it broke my heart to think about all the Soweto entrepreneurs who have been put out of work in this crisis — but it was also peaceful and relaxing.
I learned so much on this tour. As I’ve said many times before, Soweto is like a country unto itself. I’ve been to Soweto about 100 times and never leave without learning at least a dozen new things.
We started with a walk-through of the Lebo’s Soweto Backpackers property. Lebo’s — the first black-owned backpackers in South Africa — has grown so much since my first visit there in 2013. In addition to its original indoor accommodation and cycling/walking/tuk-tuk tour business, Lebo’s has a large outdoor restaurant/bar, a campsite with chalets, and a fantastic, ever-expanding community garden project.
Lerato, our fabulous tour guide, led us up a hill to a plateau overlooking the township (also home to the Leboland campsite), where he gave some background on the the area. Then we set off cycling in Soweto.
Cycling in Soweto
This was the second cycling tour I’ve done this month — read about my recent cycle through Joburg with Honest Travel — and I was reminded yet again of how much I enjoy exploring Joburg this way.
For me, the most informative part of this tour was our ride through the Mzimhlophe men’s hostel in Meadowlands. Hostels — large accommodation units built to house Black workers during the apartheid era — played a huge role in the tumultuous history of South Africa’s pre-democratic era. The Mzimhlophe hostel is designed differently from other hostels I’ve seen; rather than a cluster of mid- to high-rise buildings, this hostel is a vast expanse of single-story buildings, many with asbestos roofs. Once reserved only for men, the Mzimhlophe hostel now houses thousands of families in extremely overcrowded conditions.
On the edge of the Mzimhlophe hostel is a complex of 500 modern apartments. Although there were tons of kids playing in front of these apartments, the complex is not what it appears to be.
These apartments were completed around 2010, Lerato explained — just before South Africa hosted the soccer World Cup — and were meant to replace the completely substandard housing in Mzimhlophe. The people of the area thought they would receive these new houses as part of South Africa’s Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), in which the country’s marginalized populations were promised full home-ownership after 1994.
But the apartments weren’t RDP houses. Residents would be expected to pay rent of R1000 per month — an impossible sum for most. Also, there were only enough apartments for 500 families — what would happen to the thousands of others left behind?
In protest of this inequitable, unsolvable situation, the people of Mzimhlophe resolved to boycott the new apartments completely. They all refused to move in. Ten years later, in the midst of a crushing housing crisis, these buildings remain 100% unoccupied.
This is the excruciating legacy of poverty, inequality, and apartheid.
After Mzimhlophe, we wound slowly back through Orlando West toward the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Vilakazi Street. I managed to squeeze in a few pictures as we pedalled.
Visiting the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Vilakazi Street was a bizarre experience. This section of Orlando West is usually South Africa’s busiest tourist attraction — packed with international travelers, tour buses, souvenir vendors, and traditional South African dancers. I was unprepared for how empty it would be, and how strange that would feel.
And thus, our tour wound down. It was a great Saturday cycling in Soweto.
If you’re South African and have never done a Soweto tour before, now is a great time to try. Lebo’s has set up special rates for locals:
R350 pp for 2.5 hours (the one I did)
R500 pp for 4 hours
Tuk tuk tours:
R400 pp for 2 hours
R550 pp for 4 hours
R250 pp for 3 hours
Tours include local snacks and a drink at Lebo’s outdoor restaurant after the tour. A tasty potjiekos lunch at the restaurant costs R50. Lebo’s has set up effective COVID-19 prevention measures, and this is a great socially distanced activity. All the other information you need is at www.sowetobackpackers.com.
Thanks so much to Maria and Lebo for hosting Bongani, Nkosikhona, and me on this tour. It meant a lot to all of us.
It makes me so angry to read that those apartments next to Mzimhlophe are still empty ten years later. The development of them was also mired in corruption etc. For the last 6 years the Minister of Human Settlements, City of Joburg (under both ANC and DA control) and the provincial department of housing have been “identifying beneficiaries”….I can’t agree that this is the “legacy of poverty, inequality, and apartheid”. Its just pure incompetence, mismanagement and empty promises.
But the rest of your tour looked great. Time for a visit again.
I suppose you could argue that. But the entire social situation that created those empty apartments would never have happened without apartheid and poverty.
True. But it is a sad indictment that for 10 years no solution can be found.
I’ve worked on housing in South Africa since the early 1990s. In a way, you’re both right – there is a terrible legacy, compounded by a lot of post-apartheid mismanagement, corruption and all to often, very poor consultation with the local community. That aside, thanks for the letting us know about Lebo’s tours – hope to do it when SA reopens. I rode in the first ever Soweto cycle “event quite a few years ago early on a Sunday morning with a few hundred riders. It was more of a race than a tour, but we knew where every shebeen was on route by the amount of broken glass on the road. I was one of the few to do the entire route without a puncture.
Hi Barry, wow that is very interesting! Interestingly, I got a puncture at the end of this tour from a thorny field we rode across, although the guys from Lebo’s remedied the issue within minutes 🙂
Your photos made me smile, especially the one with the tombstones: buy one, get one free. I would love to do a tour like that.
There are rumours that the national borders will soon open to tourists. That would help people like Lebo.
We have booked a flight to Cape Town for the second half of October. Let’s see if it works out.
I laughed at the but one get one free ad at first. Then I realized it actually makes sense for an elderly married couple 😂
You’ve booked a flight from Europe for Oct.?! I’ve still been hearing that only regional African travel is likely to open anytime soon. But I hope I’m wrong!
As always, thanks for taking me along for the ride. We still seem to have a lot of tourists in SoCal–but mostly white American. Go figure.
Yep, we’re all forced to explore our own countries now.
Nice bike tour of Soweto. Those historical sites should be open. It’s also a pity about the empty apartments -it’s a big waste and not adequate for the people who needed it.
I know, it’s all so frustrating!
This one looks like a gem. I love bike tours. About the housing project, I saw something on good news about old American hotels being repurposed for homeless. God, you got to wonder why perfectly good buildings are not being used in the name of politics? BS. I’m so over the politicizing of EVERYTHING these days. On a happier note, love the school girl pic! And the new font / new blog look 🙂
Ah, thanks to much for noticing the new blog font. I thought no one would notice but me 🙂