Soweto is an urban township southwest of Johannesburg that became the largest black city in Africa. It has a deep political history most known for the Soweto Uprising of 1976 in which a peaceful protest turned violent with students shot at and others killed including 13-year-old Hector Pieterson.
I only had the one morning in Johannesburg and was delighted that my day would begin at Lebo’s Soweto Backpackers, home of Soweto Bicycle Tours.
The plan was to take the two-hour Soweto bicycle tour which would take us to some of the most interesting historical sites of Soweto including the site of the 1976 student uprising and Nelson Mandela’s former home.
Upon arrival we met our guide for the day, N.K., a very friendly and knowledgeable young man.
Before we started, I faced my first tough decision of the day: which bike to select?
There was a wide selection to suit everyone’s comfort levels so I chose the one that looked the easiest to ride after ascertaining there were no pink ones available.
We then all jumped on our bikes and started exploring the streets of Soweto.
Apart from a few hills, the roads around Soweto were typically flat and suitable for beginner riders. Soon we had reached our first stop from which we could see the Orlando Towers, one of the most prominent landmarks in Soweto.
If you’re an adrenaline junkie, this is a place to add to your bucket list. 100 meters above the ground with your choice on how to get back down to earth – you could bungee jump, power swing, abseil and more!
Personally I was happy to simply enjoy looking at the brightly colored towers with both feet planted firmly on the ground.
The Warm, Friendly People of Soweto
While here we were treated to a roadside song courtesy of the lovely N.K. and a passerby. One thing I loved about Soweto was the warm, friendly people and watching N.K. interact with them was a real privilege.
Everyone we encountered greeted us with welcoming smiles and as we rode through the streets, both children and adults would wave at us and shout hello.
The kids loved having their photos taken – just make sure you show them the picture after you’ve shot it!
Shebeen – A Unique Cultural Experience
We hopped back onto our bikes and journeyed to our next stop where we were to taste the local homebrew beer. This was a real opportunity to connect with the culture as we would enjoy it in a Shebeen.
A Shebeen is a local unlicensed drinking venue, usually located in townships as an alternative to pubs and bars where under apartheid, indigenous Africans were prohibited from entering as they are reserved for whites.
The brew was passed around the room and it finally came to my turn to try.
The beer was extremely different to any other beer I’ve tasted – the Africans use sorghum in the same way as barley to produce a “malt”.
It was a very unusual taste with a distinct sourness that reminded me a bit of yoghurt. Definitely worth a try though and only 2% alcohol.
While in the Shebeen we also sang Shosholoza, a traditional Southern African folk song. Then we enjoyed some dancing and tried on some traditional dress – a beautiful way to immerse ourselves in the culture.
The Dark Side of Soweto
Soweto still shows many of the scars of apartheid, with the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum one of the key Soweto sites.
It’s named after Hector Pieterson, the 13-year-old who was one of the first killed in the Soweto Uprising in which over 500 schoolchildren were killed. N.K. explained the entire story to us all in great detail.
The image that will remain with me forever is the photograph of Hector Pieterson being carried by another high school student while his grieving sister runs alongside them. It’s a chilling reminder of South Africa’s fight against apartheid and it affects you in a way that is tough to describe.
Soon after seeing this photo a school group walked into the memorial and all I could think was “how could this possibly happen?!”.
Unfortunately we didn’t have time to check out the Hector Pieterson Museum but N.K. recommended visitors go here before the bike tour as a place to learn more about the 1976 uprising and the history of Soweto.
After a quick stop at Mandela House, home to former president Nelson Mandela between 1946 and 1962, our tour came to an end. It was an eye-opening tour and a huge history lesson – the perfect way to be introduced to South Africa.
Get out of the car and experience Soweto by bike!
This popular, eco-friendly and exciting township tour takes you around the streets of Soweto. Go out with our local guides for a half or a full day cycling tour around the community and get to know what makes this township unique. Have a taste of Soweto, eat our local burger – Kota, stop at the shebeen and enjoy the traditional beer with the people. Go home with a different perception of the township.
This trip was made possible by the South Africa Tourism. As always, all thoughts and opinions shared on this blog post are completely my own.