En Route: Soweto by Bike

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Photo by Sam Nzima.

A beautiful summer day in 2004. As Thebe, whose name rhymes with tempeh rather than echoing the great Greek city, and the white man cycled through the streets of Soweto, one of the many townships reserved for non-whites during Apartheid, the latter noticed that while everyone was exceptionally friendly, many of the residents looked at him with eyes of utter wonder. Thebe noticed them looking at the white man like this too, and he just laughed.

“Say Thebe, why are people looking at me like that?” the white man finally asked. “Probably because they’ve never seen a white man go through Soweto on a bicycle.” “Seriously?” “Yeah.” Perpetually smiling and optimistic, Thebe seemed the type who if given just a thousand rand would shortly thereafter own the whole country. Born and raised in Soweto, at thirty or so he’d already traveled the world playing djembe with the Soweto Percussion Ensemble. But that didn’t pay the rent. His latest venture was putting together bike tours around Soweto to make some money, and because he wanted to show people the township up close. The particular white man he was guiding, a friend of a friend visiting from America, was his first client.

Thebe pointed to a brown stone monument on the side of the road marking the place where Hector Pieterson, a thirteen-year-old black student, was shot in 1976. They stopped at the curb, and looked at the photograph of dying Pieterson carried by a fellow student. Pieterson was shot during the Soweto Uprising, during which students protested the implementation of Afrikaans and English as the media of instruction in South African secondary schools regardless of locally-spoken languages. A van pulled up near them. Concerned-looking white people with cameras around their necks spilled out of the van, instantly taking pictures. Their guide, a black man, told them about Pieterson for a moment and led them in a tight unit to the nearby museum. Sowetans went about their day around them. Another vanload of white people arrived. Thebe’s white man thought the white people looked like they were inside an aquarium. He then imagined they possibly thought the same of those outside the van.

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