By Lesley Stones
Johannesburg - Apprehension starts to bite as the sprawling mass of Alexandra opens out before me. I’m about to tackle one of the most unusual tourism experiences in the country – a bike ride through a township – and I feel nervous. Not from white suburban angst, but from the prospect of my first encounter with a bicycle for 30 years.
Don’t worry, I tell myself. Riding a bike is a skill you never forget – like, well, like riding a bike, really.
I’m looking for the Bellaskie Restaurant, but somehow drive down a skinny alley that turns into a dead end surrounded by shacks.
In the end, Antony Mmatli meets me at a garage and laughs when I tell him I’ve just got lost in Alex. He points to a clapped-out Ford and says: “If you’d been in that they’d have probably stolen it.” He looks serious, but I think he’s joking.
The Bellaskie is one of the stopping points in the Alexandra Bicycle Tour, run by Mmatli and its founder, Jeffrey Mulaudzi.
It’s a lovely idea, and feels far less intrusive and much more of a realistic experience than taking a bus tour. Mmatli agrees. “On a bike you get to appreciate the true essence and see the true lifestyle, and that’s what we want to show you.”
I ask about safety, and Mmatli shuffles guiltily. Ah yes, there was one unfortunate incident, he says. I wait to hear if someone was mugged and had their camera, bike, cellphone and wallet stolen. Or if somebody was run over or beaten up. “Someone had an asthma attack,” he says. He’s at it again, using his deadpan humour to take the mickey out of paranoid whities. He does it superbly, and we both giggle.
“That’s the reason we do the tours, because people think this is a no-go area and we’re going to shoot you and rob you. But that’s never happened because the community responds positively towards tourists,” he says.
Then we’re out on the street, strapping on helmets and mounting gleaming bikes. I belatedly realise that mine is too small, but by then I’m careening down the street hanging on as I judder over potholes and speed humps. For the first few reassuring minutes there is no traffic, and I get acquainted with the long forgotten art of pushing pedals.
Suddenly traffic surrounds us and we’re squeezing between taxis, lorries, cars and pedestrians. Mulaudzi waves us to the right and I have a mini-panic. A right hand turn – that means crossing traffic. Can’t we do a tour that only has left turns, I plead.
After 10 minutes I haven’t seen much because I’m staring at the ground to avoid obstacles. But as confidence grows I start to look around, at stalls selling vegetables, sweets and shoes. At heaps of rubbish and foraging dogs, at kids kicking a ball or skipping, who stop and shout “mlungu” as this whitey pedals by. As we slow down to regroup they queue up to press their forefingers to mine, saying “sharp-sharp”. One boy rests his hand on my knee and jogs alongside for a moment, asking how I am and saying welcome.
Then we stop on open land near the massive, dour building of a women’s hostel. Aids has spread so quickly because couples live separately and the men go with prostitutes instead, Mulaudzi says. As we cycle around the side, the smell of raw sewage is gruesome.
Now we enter an alley between shacks that tapers off into a corner. A narrow gully separates the shacks with no room to cycle, so we manhandle our bikes around the bend. Bob Marley is blaring from one hut and a curious mother watches from the doorway of another. Rain is spitting, but in a downpour the gulley must fill up in minutes and flood every home in sight.
Soon we’re pedalling past a colourful kiosk optimistically marked “international hair salon”. I stop to take some photos, then look up and don’t see Mulaudzi’s red shirt bobbing reassuringly ahead. But there’s a comforting deep voice from behind as the back marker tells me they’ve turned to the left. There’s always a back marker, and a middle man with the bigger groups too, to make sure no one gets left behind.
We turn into scruffy Nelson Mandela Yard, which is now a Heritage Precinct. Mandela moved to Joburg in 1940 and stayed in Alexandra’s Anglican Church rectory before renting a room in this yard. “Alexandra occupies a treasured place in my heart. It was the first place I had ever lived away from home,” he wrote in The Long Walk to Freedom.
His room had no running water or electricity, and it’s still a dismal place today, littered with weeds and rubbish. Yet Mandela wrote: “Life in Alexandra was exhilarating and precarious. Its atmosphere was alive, its spirit adventurous, its people resourceful. In spite of the hellish aspects of life in Alexandra, the township was also a kind of heaven.”
Behind the wall a massive new Mandela Museum is being built, an imposing affair that overshadows the ramshackle room where the icon began his struggle years.
Alexandra was built to house 70 000 people, but Mulaudzi estimates that 800 000 live there now. He knows about a quarter of the area, and he’s a popular figure as he pedals along in his smart red shirt and black trousers, leading an assortment of tourists.
He wants to bring visitors not only as a business venture for himself, but because the tours have positive spin-offs for everyone.
“We hope it will change the way people think of our township,” he says. He also believes they give the residents a sense of self-worth, as people come to see how they live and meet them on their own turf.
A two-hour tour for R300 includes a visit to a shebeen, a school, and Mandela’s house, with various pauses for historical or cultural briefings. A four-hour version for R400 adds lunch, a tour of a hostel and a beer tasting.
Mulaudzi is only 20 and Mmatli is 23. They met at choir practice, and you’d battle to find two men with squeakier clean credentials.
The venture started in 2010 when Mulaudzi’s French hockey coach dropped him off at home and asked to be shown around. Mulaudzi’s mother was a domestic worker raising three children singlehandedly, but there were two bikes in the family and he grabbed them to conduct a tour.
The coach enjoyed it so much that when 14 of his friends visited South Africa for the 2010 World Cup, Mulaudzi gave them a tour by minibus, and used the R2 400 they paid to buy two more bikes. Now he has 22 bikes, and next year he’ll hopefully earn enough money to start paying himself a wage.
At the end I was wearing a silly grin after having a brilliant time. The most memorable aspect was not the historical insight, but the exhilaration of cycling through a township to see a completely different lifestyle without feeling in the least bit nervous. Except for that fear of taking a tumble. - Sunday Independent