South Africa


Soweto was where Nelson Mandela married, lived and became politicised. Now, a new cycling tour has started there - one of many township tourist enterprises opening up across the Rainbow Nation…

Metro, 11 December 2013

Standing on rust-red earth with abandoned mine shafts studding the horizon, our Cycle in Soweto (, £23 four-hour tour) guide, Oliver, is clear in his safety debriefing. ‘As you cycle around, don’t be surprised to hear people say, ‘Shoot me!’’

Nervous glances flash on the faces of the six tourists. Yes, we’ve all heard nightmare Sowetan stories. Burning cars. ‘Necklacing’. Rampant gun crime. But that was the 1980s… right?

Sensing discomfort, Oliver pipes up. ‘They’re not saying, ‘shoot’ because they want to kill you.’ he laughs. ‘It’s because they want their photo taken. We’re vain people in Soweto.’

Until recently, visitors had good reason to feel uncertain. A decade ago, standing in the ‘South West Townships’ with costly cameras and spangly new bicycles was a slightly tremble-some venture. But during our tour, we saunter off for 30-minute wanders without locking our bikes. Even so, many township tours still treat denizens like dangerous lions in a game park - think air-conditioned buses gawping at local Soweto ‘wildlife’ with doors locked shut. Cycle in Soweto strays from such ‘poverty porn’ - encouraging punters to natter away with some of Soweto’s 2.3million locals, spending rand on local businesses. Moreover, it offers an insight into modern South Africa and Mandela’s story that no amount of Kruger safaris could ever provide.

But before we even touch foot-to-pedal, a cheeky little tyke has gambolled from-out-of-nowhere to sit on our frame. ‘Smith’ is seven and refuses to budge. ‘Please, meester, ride! Go fast please!’ Not wanting ‘Smith’ to end up with a cracked head, we decline. Within seconds of him hopping off, another young ragamuffin has replaced him, urging us to do the same. All day, gaggles of giggling children follow us around, doling out friendly ‘Sanbonanis’ (Zulu for ‘hello, people’) or making our bikes wobble all-over-the-place by high-fiving us.

Sunday is the best day to witness Soweto at its liveliest. Barbers shave men in roadside tents, parasol-toting mothers braid daughters’ hairs while some houses prepare to slaughter a cow for Sunday lunch (‘good for a hangover’, reckons Oliver). Upbeat jive and kwaito booms from every home, but it’s live gospel that lures us towards a marquee, where a church service is taking place. Old dears in Ascot-hatted Sabbath splendour boogie in the front row, while younger women shake booties in the aisles, tongues ululating around their mouths. Worshippers spontaneously leap up to praise the lord, while others storm the stage to sing. Sunday morning Eucharist, this is not.

For lunch, we alight at Mthembu’s Tuckshop. Sitting on crates, we chomp on kota, a hollowed-out loaf of bread filled with chips, some Spam-like meat plus a sausage (?) all topped with a slice of Kraft processed cheese.

Back on the bikes, we’re on a post-prandial, thigh-straining uphill slog when a Lamborghini whizzes past. You don’t have to look hard to find stereotype-quashing affluence in Soweto - such as manicured, millionaire-festooned ‘Beverly Hills’ where Winnie Mandela has her heavily-gated mansion. ‘Anything you want, you can get in Soweto,’ says Oliver. Indeed, the township now has a university, world’s largest hospital, bungee jump (Orlando Towers) and wine festivals - unthinkable when Mandela lived here last in 1990.

That’s not to say there isn’t poverty. In fact, some of it is downright distressing. In the Mzimhlophe ‘3rd class’ area, we dodge sewage, cockerels and dead rats while pedalling past Portaloo-sized corrugated iron huts, where people live without toilets. Remnants of apartheid are never far away either - whether it’s harrowing Hector Pieterson Museum (named after the 13-year-old schoolboy killed during 1976’s Soweto Uprising) or Mandela House (his former home, now a tiny museum).

We also visit a shebeen (unlicensed bar). Entering the corrugated metal shack, we find five track-suited middle-aged men supping Joburg Beer from milk cartons. A shabby white bucket is placed in the middle of the hut. This is umqombothi, a frothy homebrew made from maize by community ‘Mamas’ (older women). It tastes of flat beer with Sour Skittles thrown in. Swatting flies away, we raise the bucket to our lips before passing it around and talking football - yet another immersive experience.

Soweto isn’t the only place benefitting from township tourism. One night, Coffeebeans Routes (, which hooks visitors up with local personalities, took us to the home of retired nurse Sheila in Cape Town’s Gugulethu township for a Come Dine With Me-esque ‘Mandela Supper’ (£56) where she would cook the great man’s favourite dishes.  

Sitting in their front room (dominated by a huge plasma TV), Sheila and her jazz-trumpeter husband tell us about townshipular life, including their occasional meals of cat (tastes ‘like rabbit’, apparently) and dog (‘only the shoulder meat is good’). Fortunately, household pets didn’t feature highly on Madiba’s diet, so we settle down to steamed bread, chicken livers, curried beef, umngqusho (dried corn/beans) and trifle (not dissimilar to the Nan-favouring M&S version), all of which Mandela dreamt about during incarceration. In between kitchen sorties, aproned Sheila demonstrates her Xhosa dialect (involves lots of clicking noises) while her husband whips out his trumpet for a performance.

Back in Soweto, we finish with a braai (barbecue) at 707-Panyaza. It’s 5pm and people thirstily devour bottles of whisky, while buckets brimming with £1 bottles of beer are plonked on each table. To get our food, we order at the in-house ‘Butchery’ before taking our raw meat over to the barbecue. Twenty minutes later it’s served with a plate of pap (maize porridge) and sans cutlery. Like ravenous lions tucking into an antelope, we dig in, tearing joints and chicken wings apart with our hands. Mid-gorge, a man clutching a rum bottle ambles over to give the three-part ‘love, peace and happiness’ Soweto handshake and tell us how our presence makes him proud because, ‘most people are too scared to visit my hometown.’ It chimes with the spirit of forgiveness preached by Mandela upon his 1990 release from prison. And just like SA’s transforming townships, it’s a fitting legacy.