Bicycle Portraits: a unique view of South Africa

© Bicycle Portraits

How much is the tale of bicycle and its rider worth? In a country like South Africa, with its diverse people, landscapes, customs and communities, bicycles offer a valuable glimpse into the lives of their owners.

There may not be a strong central cycling community in the country, but the people who ride share a passion, a joy and often a defiance.

Photographer Stan Engelbrecht and animator Nic Grobler are cycling enthusiasts who wanted to find out more and celebrate these people. Also, more intriguingly, they wanted to ask why so few people ride bikes in South Africa. So they came up with a plan.

What followed was a journey of about 4,000 miles of cycling, 500 interviews and countless punctures, riding on which were their hopes of changing the lives of their compatriots.

&Bike: How did Bicycle Portraits get started? What inspired you?

Stan Engelbrecht (SE): Myself and Nic Grobler, a friend, were talking about why so few South Africans were commuting by bicycle, or using bicycles as a mode of transport. This was about 3 years ago and I was already almost exclusively using my bicycle to get around here in Cape Town. Nic was still living up in Johannesburg at that time, but also spending a lot of time traveling by, or with, his bicycle. He was visiting here and we had this idea to ride around and just see who is out there commuting and why, but after hours of cycling around we found only 3 people commuting!

But we stayed interested and before too long we had 50 and then 100 interviews. To date we’ve interviewed well over 500 everyday cyclists. But still, it’s shocking to us how few people even consider it an option to ride. There is a massive mental block against the bicycle here. Very surprising, given the poverty here, the atrocious public transport system, and the great distances people have to travel daily.

&Bike: One of the aims of the project was to help underprivileged community in South Africa, where did that aim come from? Why there and why bikes?

SE: Nic and I both firmly believe that the use of bicycles, and the ownership of bicycles, can empower people – especially the poor majority that are faced with long distances to travel daily to get to work. Our view of how we wanted to be able to influence the issue was twofold.

Firstly, by doing this project and publishing books, we are showing everyday South Africans that it is possible to commute by bike, and that there are people doing it already. For so many South Africans there is such an incredible mental block to the idea of riding that it is a tough one to overcome, especially with the lack of infrastructure we face.

Secondly we envisioned to be able to assist those who already ride with some of the basics that they lack. We were shocked to find how many people ride without brakes. People are poor and end up buying cheap Chinese-made bikes, that literally do not last 3 months. Gears and brakes are the first things to go. And for many repairing those things are not a priority – being able to eat is. Never mind investing in helmets, or lights, or a new set of tyres. It would be great to be able to assist people with those things, maybe with the help of some bicycle parts and accessory manufactures, but no-one has been forthcoming. And to be honest, we can’t afford to do it ourselves – the production of the project, and the printing of the book, never mind the distribution, has been extremely expensive for us. And we’ve done it all completely independently.

&Bike: Your own travels on the bicycle are an interesting part of the project – why did you decide to do that and what kind of insight did it give you into cycling in certain parts of South Africa?

SE: I think from the beginning it was just understood that we would do it by bicycle. It just seemed like the natural thing to do. We didn’t realise it initially, but doing the project from our own bicycles has a incredible impact on the project. It gave us another level of understanding as to why people might choose, or choose not to, ride. For instance, you’ll arrive in a small community that live on a hillside, with very steep roads, and you’ll be sure to find that no-one there rides. It suddenly makes sense when you’re riding up that hill yourself. Also, when you approach a fellow rider by bike, there is an instant kinship, a deeper understanding, that exists. People really got the project when we asked to photograph and interview them.

&Bike: You mentioned poor infrastructure – can you give us a sense of what it’s like riding in South Africa?

SE: Riding here is beautiful – South Africa is a beautiful country – but sadly it is quite dangerous on the roads. And the bad infrastructure is not limited to the lack of cycle lanes. Our public transport system while it is improving a lots, is still often in turmoil. And out informal mini-bus taxi services are run like above-the-law mafias, who pose a danger through reckless driving to all road users, not just cyclists or pedestrians. Another big problem we face is educating drivers (and cyclists) as the the rights cyclists have on the roads. And a lot of that will come down to experience, which means we need commuters out on the roads to familiarise drivers with our presence, but of course there is still a lot of animosity from people who have never had to share the road before. It can be dangerous. Of course cycle lanes would be the ultimate answer, but there is not enough money or infrastructure here to make that a priority. We have to share the road. Having said that, we have to option to sometimes commute along the dirt tracks on the lower face of Table Mountain that overlooks Cape Town. This place is full of crazy contrasts.

&Bike: Have you seen many success stories where bikes have helped communities and individuals – any that you can relate?

SE: We have a few programs, including a couple by the government, to get poor people onto bikes, teach people how to ride (many can’t), and also to teach basic bike repair skills. There is one program that has done some very valuable work in rural communities we children have to walk great distances to get to school and back. The program is called Shova Kalula, and they gift bicycles to children, show them how to repair a flat etc., but most importantly, they instil a sense of ownership in the child. Often, when a bicycle is introduced into a small community, everyone starts using it, and the kids who it was meant for might be pushed aside and not get the benefit of the use of the bike. And before too long it might be ruined, or sold. But if a child knows that they own the bike, and adults check up at school that they arrive on it daily, it makes all the difference.

&Bike: It seems you’re trying to educate local communities, but also cyclists in other countries about how they can help – is the understanding of cycling as a social tool growing?

SE: There is. But it’s a complex process. It’s hard to understand exactly how people can be helped – you can’t just give someone a bike. It’s not that simple, as commuting by bike is just not part of our culture or social history. There is a sudden boom here in South Africa’s major centres of bicycle commuters. A lot of people are writing it off as a ‘cool fad’, with fixed gear culture exploding all around the world, but ultimately I think it’s great that more people are giving it a try. Maybe it’ll blow over for some, but other might truly fall in love with their bikes. The more people who ride – for whatever reason – the better. The more people who ride, the more visible the concept of commuting is, the more we educate drivers as to the presence of commuters, and the more pressure there is for better cycling infrastructure.

&Bike: There are probably many misconceptions and much mystery around what cycling in South Africa is actually like – what do you think people from other countries need to appreciate about it?

SE: For the longest time cycling in South Africa has been about sport or leisure. And for the majority it still is. The truth is that it is still nearly impossible to walk into a bicycle shop and buy a commuter bike – they sell mountain bikes and road bikes. There is no commuter culture here. But there should be, for so many reasons. And, South Africa is a great country for bicycle touring. With it’s fantastic weather and beautiful scenery – with a little back-roads planning, it’s a wonderful place to tour, meet people and get in adventures.

&Bike: What’s the response been like and what do you think has helped people connect and engage with this project?

SE: We’ve had phenomenal response from around the world. People respond to the environmental aspect of the project, but it must be remembered that this project is not just about bicycles, it a portrait of a nation – the stories tell you so much more that what or why people ride. They give you an insight into someone’s culture, socio-political background, their personal hopes and fears and dreams. I think people respond mostly to that.

&Bike: Does the bicycle have a bright future in South Africa and what’s standing in its way?

SE: Yes, it surely does. But we have to change people’s attitude towards the bicycle. In the face of social and cultural and political stigma, people need to feel free to make a choice that benefits their physical and mental health, their relationship with their surroundings and their community, and the environment. And those who do choose to ride must be celebrated.

Images courtesy of Bicycle Portraits and Day One Publishing. Learn more about Bicycle Portraits:

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