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Cycling Soweto: 5 things you won't see from a car

By Claire Hu, for CNN
January 8, 2014 -- Updated 0648 GMT (1448 HKT)
A bicycle tour is a better way to appreciate Soweto street life than from behind the windows of a tour bus. A bicycle tour is a better way to appreciate Soweto street life than from behind the windows of a tour bus.
Soweto from the saddle
Reborn city
Views from the hills
Down at the shebeen
Evading the police
Cunning plan
Black-run backpackers'
The hostel owner and his wife
Prize-winning street
In da Soweto house
Museum of the struggle
"Shoot you?"
  • Cycling is one of the best ways to see this huge former black township
  • You can drink a beer in a "shebeen," an informal bar
  • Vilakazi Street has been home to two Novel Peace Prize winners -- Mandela and Desmond Tutu

(CNN) -- We're in a dimly lit shebeen (pub) in Soweto sharing beer from a communal cup and the conversation is getting heated.

We're discussing President Jacob Zuma's house refurbishment using more than 200 million rand of state funds -- a move being investigated by the country's anti-corruption watchdog.

"Pah, he lives there in his own Hollywood, and we have nothing," spits a drinker while whacking his fly swatter furiously against the bench we're sitting on, lashing one unfortunate drinker.

It's just another afternoon in Africa's most famous township -- a hotbed for political dissent since its creation in 1903 as part of the forced resettlement of black workers from Johannesburg.

Soweto is now a relatively safe -- and fascinating -- place to visit.
Soweto is now a relatively safe -- and fascinating -- place to visit.

Soweto, now incorporated into wider Joburg, is a generally safe and culturally rich place to visit that's gone through substantial regeneration in the past few years.

We're seeing it by bicycle, a far more direct way to appreciate the street life than from behind the windows of a tour bus.

Our guide is local man Tshepo Mokone, from Lebo's Soweto Backpackers.

The roads are good, although be warned: Soweto has hills -- but they're a great place to catch the views including of the new Soccer City stadium and Orlando Towers, which you can bungee jump from.


Shebeens were originally a type of illegal pub, normally run by women in shacks to service men living in workers' hostels.

Now they're legal and a place to while away the hours drinking umqombothi, a traditional beer made from maize, as we discover during a visit to a shebeen in the poor Soweto quarter of Mzimhlophe.

Shebeens, once illegal, are now places to drink local beer and gossip.
Shebeens, once illegal, are now places to drink local beer and gossip.

With communal toilets and taps, and raw sewage running in the streets, living conditions are tough and the shebeen a kind of refuge.

Tshepo explains the strategies shebeens used to employ during police raids.

"The shack had no windows, so you couldn't see inside," he says.

"People were told not to make any noise but that's hard after a few drinks, so if the police came they would start pretending to worship -- as if it was a church service."

Another cunning plan was to dress in traditional African attire, as if the drinkers were in the midst of a Zulu ceremony.

Tshepo gives an example as he dons a beaded head-dress and jewelry, much to the mirth of the assembled clientele.

Other typical places to eat and drink in Soweto include The Spot, a tavern (corner of Vilakazi and Baqwa Streets); Nambitha (Vilakazi Street; +27 11 936 9128) and Sakhumzi (Vilakazi Street; +27 11 536 1379) serve upmarket township fare.

MORE: 4 nuggets of Jobourg history

Lebo\'s has the feel of a laid-back beach hotel.
Lebo's has the feel of a laid-back beach hotel.

Lebo's Soweto Backpackers

Owner of the first and apparently only black-run backpackers hostel in South Africa, Lebo Malepa started offering overnight accommodation at his great-grandparents' house in 1998 before officially opening the guesthouse and bike tour business in 2003.

"I came into the industry because I wanted to see people getting off the [tour] bus," Lebo says.

"Soweto is a great place to learn about the history of South Africa. Every person and every building has a story to tell."

Set on a hill with views over the more affluent Soweto suburb of Orlando West and near the much-visited Vilakazi Street, Lebo's backpackers feels a bit like a laid-back beach hotel.

There's even a sandy bar area out back where you can enjoy a beer and fried fish before setting out on a bike or walking tour.

Or you can just sit around and chat with the employees, including Lebo's Swedish wife Maria who came to work for him and never left.

10823A Pooe Street, Orlando West; +27 11 936 3444

Vilakazi Street -- where successful locals rev up their Mercs and play South African house music.
Vilakazi Street -- where successful locals rev up their Mercs and play South African house music.

Vilakazi Street

This buzzy road was home to two Nobel Peace Prize winners, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, who, like Soweto, are icons of the struggle against apartheid.

It's also where successful locals come to rev up their Mercs and blare out the latest kwaito (a form of South African house music) from booming speakers -- it makes our bike tires judder.

You can learn about Soweto's past as a center of resistance at the Hector Pieterson memorial and museum off Vilakazi Street (8287 Khumalo St.; +27 11 536 2253), named after a 13-year-old boy shot dead by police during a peaceful student protest in 1976.

Nelson Mandela lived on Vilakazi Street with his first and second wives. His house has since been turned into Mandela House Museum (8115 Orlando West; +27 11 936 7754) featuring exhibits and personal items such as the first shoes he wore as a free man.

The road has some cool street art, the result of a competition among 130 local artists. The winning wall murals, sculptures and mosaics are inspired by daily township life and Soweto's history.

READ: CNNGo in Johannesburg: Haunted past, happening present

Sowetan slang is fast, furious and funny.
Sowetan slang is fast, furious and funny.

Learn the lingo

If you want to interact with Sowetans as you peddle through the streets, you should learn a few words of the local slang.

Sowetans have a wicked sense of humor and the lingo is fast, furious and funny. On being greeted by us white folk on Vilakazi Street, one guy solemnly told us: "Don't talk to me, talk to my lawyer."

Take your choice of how to say hello.

The common South African handshake involves the normal gesture, followed by a clasping of the thumbs and then back to a normal handshake. Variations on the ending include a slow sliding of the palms together or a snapping of your thumbs in tandem (tricky at first).

In Soweto it's popular to use the Spanish greeting "hola" to say hi (the reasons why are obscure). Or the Zulu "sanibonani" for "how are you?" to which the streetwise reply is "yebo" -- "cool."

A popular expression is "shap shap," meaning anything from "agreed" to "hello," "bye" or "great." If you hear someone saying it, you can be sure they're happy.

In Soweto, a "kota" is a kind of local version of a burger. A quarter loaf of bread is hollowed out and filled with various delights such as chips, egg, mince and achaar (a kind of pickle salad).

And if kids run up to you on your bike and plead with you to "shoot" them, they don't have a death wish but want you to take a photo of them.

Boutique hotel

Kliptown is one of Soweto's oldest neighborhoods and the venue for the signing of the Freedom Charter in 1955, when thousands of activists agreed on a document that would form the basis of the country's post-apartheid Constitution.

Freedom Square is a vast and impressive area of modernist architecture with an unusual monument and art gallery, shops and a bustling marketplace.

You can hop off your bike and walk into Soweto Hotel on the square (+27 11 527 7300). A funky boutique hotel featuring black and white photos by the late great black South African photographer Alf Khumalo, Afro-retro decor and friendly staff, it's a great place to recover while listening to live jazz and sipping a cocktail.

The hotel's founding partner Lindiwe Sangweni-Siddo trained in Switzerland and worked for luxury chains abroad but returned to South Africa to launch her vision for a high quality Soweto hotel.

"My vision was to start a company with a typical African flavor -- a place where we could begin to define South African hospitality," she says.

MORE: iReport assignment: Send us your best pics of Johannesburg

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