SOUTH AFRICA | CYCLING TOUR
Clients can learn about he modern history of South Africa by cycling around Soweto.
Soweto By Bike
Exploring Soweto, South Africa, with Lebo’s Soweto Backpackers
BY JIM CALIO
WHEN I SUGGEST TO PEOPLE that they should take
a bicycle ride through Soweto when in Johannesburg,
they look at me strangely. Soweto? Isn’t it dangerous?
Isn’t it where they had all those riots years ago?
The answer to the first question is “no,” it is not as
dangerous as you might think, especially now that
tourism has taken root and begun flourishing. True,
it used to be a kind of no-man’s-land, a township
of 3. 5 million people, mostly living in depressed
economic conditions. But that is changing. In the
last few years, especially since the end of apartheid
in the 1990s, Soweto, like Johannesburg itself and
other areas of South Africa, has turned the corner.
Today, it is a mixed area, a combination of some
grinding poverty, some new construction, businesses and homes. You can still see the dilapidated
metal shacks that blight huge areas. But you can
also see elegant new homes, some worth millions,
albeit behind high security fences, with BMWs and
other luxury cars parked in the driveways. And
satellite dishes are everywhere, even on the poorest
As for the second question, the answer is “yes.”
Soweto was the scene of the student uprising in 1976
that ended violently and marked the beginning of the
end of that nation’s murderous apartheid policy. But,
that, as they say, was then and this is now. And nowadays, Soweto is about business — chiefly tourism.
One of the youngest and most dynamic
Soweto entrepreneurs is Lebo Malepa. He owns
the bicycle tour company, Lebo’s Soweto Backpackers, which is based on a side street in Soweto and does
a thriving business with tourists from South Africa
and, increasingly, Europe and the U.S.
Malepa believes that you can see Soweto better
from the ground or, in this case, the seat of a bicycle
plying the hilly streets, than from an air-conditioned
“You can’t really experience a place if you are
in a tour bus or even in a car,” he said. “Only on
foot or by bike can you feel a real connection to the
Malepa offers two-hour, four-hour or full-day
bicycle tours of Soweto. Each tour is guided by one
of his staff members, 15 in all, and the bikes are
kept in shape by a mechanic and a series of trainees
from the neighborhood.
In fact, his neighborhood provided the working
capital, so to speak, for his business, which he began
in 2003. Until then, Malepa was selling crafts outside
a local museum but felt that tourists were missing
“I started using borrowed bicycles and had to
share the profits with the owners,” he said. “I later
bought three and, now, I have about 50 bikes. When
we need more than 50 bikes, we rent from a youth
group in the area that’s involved in a bicycle project.
The money for the bicycle rentals goes directly to the
Among the stops on the tours: Nel-
son Mandela’s former home on Vilakazi
Street (fellow Nobel Prize winner Des-
mond Tutu also owns a home on this
street), the Hector Pieterson Memorial
and Museum (in honor of the 12-year-old
boy who was killed in the 1976 uprising)
and, at the end of the day, a stop at a shebeen, an
unlicensed local bar. New restaurants are springing
up daily, and the nightlife is vibrant. Prices for the
tours start at $45 per person.
To read about the
visit TravelAge West.
SOUTH AFRICA TOURISM