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.

Cycling in Soweto
Cycling in Soweto with Nkosikhona, Bongani, Khanyiso, Lerato, and Hlubi.

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.

Lebo and Bongani at the backpackers
Lebo (left), the man himself, and Bongani of the African Accent Spaza Shop. Bongani, our other friend Nkosikhona, and I did the Soweto cycling tour as part of a scouting mission for a new project we’re planning in Katlehong — more on that soon.

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.

Entrance to Leboland
The entrance to Leboland, where the gardens and campsite are.
Sheep at Leboland
Mama and baby sheep.
Mama and baby chickens. I nearly died of cuteness overload.
Lebo's guide Lerato at the beginning of our tour
Lerato, our guide for the day, gives us an overview of Soweto.

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.

Riding through Mzimhlophe men's hostel
Riding through the Mzimhlophe men’s hostel in Meadowlands.

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.

Apartments beside Mzimhlophe hostel
Apartments beside the Mzimhlophe hostel.

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.

Empty apartment building on the edge of Mzimhlophe
Two days later, I’m still struggling to wrap my head around this tragedy.

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.

Tombstone ad in Soweto
Khaabo Tombstones, the largest tombstone company in Soweto.
School girls in Orlando West
Saturday school girls. I love how everyone knows I’m there but no one is looking at me.
Cycling crew
Our crew in front of a mural by Soweto-based artist Senzo. (Photo: Lerato Mabato)

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.

Empty Hector Pieterson Museum
The Hector Pieterson Museum, which — along with Nelson Mandela’s House — is still closed. Surely it’s time for these important historical monuments to re-open?
Winnie Mandela mural on Vilakazi Street
This mural honoring Winnie Mandela was painted on Vilakazi Street after her death in 2018. I’ve seen it several times, but this is the first time I’ve been able to photograph it without a bunch of people/buses/cars in the way.

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:

Bike tours:
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

Walking tours:
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.

Orlando, Soweto

Thanks so much to Maria and Lebo for hosting Bongani, Nkosikhona, and me on this tour. It meant a lot to all of us.

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