Johannesburg bikes for Madiba in the Freedom Ride


    Around 5 000 people lined up on the Nelson Mandela Bridge to ride to Soweto and back in Joburg’s first Freedom Ride. (Image: Lucille Davie)

    • Lisa Seftel
    Executive Director
    Department of transport, City of Johannesburg
    +27 11 870 4511

    The world’s biggest cycle race
    In the swim things at the Midmar Mile
    A Mad Swim from Mozambique to Madagascar
    From Mdantsane to the world: The Eastern Cape’s champion boxers

    Lucille Davie

    Under a moody Sunday sky, Johannesburg mayor Parks Tau led 5 000 people off the Nelson Mandela Bridge in the city’s inaugural Freedom Ride, to celebrate the life and legacy of the world statesman.

    The ride, from the bridge to Vilakazi Street in Soweto and back again, was to be 35 kilometres long, but the route had to be moved because of flooding after heavy rains, turning the ride into a 55-kilometre slog for amateurs. According to his spokesperson, Fred Mokoko, the mayor found the ride tough going, perhaps because of the longer route, but he managed to finish.

    Tau was happy with the turnout, and in particular, the multiracial nature of the riders. “It is the culmination of the aspirations of the leadership that we have a multiracial race. The race celebrates the ownership of freedom, as the city and the country.” He was also pleased that, whereas 20 years ago whites would not have ventured into Soweto, now they went freely in and out of the township. Several along the route proclaimed that this had been their first visit to Soweto.

    After giving interviews before the start, the mayor set off, leading the bristling pack briefly through Braamfontein, then out west through the suburbs into Soweto, and up Vilakazi Street, where Mandela had his home at number 8115. The house has been restored and is now a museum which attracts visitors from around the world. The street also features the home of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who, like Mandela, is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate. The street is a major tourist attraction. The Hector Pieterson Museum is also nearby, the theme of which is to commemorate the 1976 student uprising.

    The sentiment among riders was undoubtedly great enjoyment, with many saying what a great idea it was, and indicating that they would be back next year for the second Freedom Ride. Many found it hard going, given several long uphills. A cut-off for arriving at Vilakazi Street at 11.30am was set, and any riders who reached the street after that time were ferried back to the bridge by Rea Vaya buses or Metrorail trains.

    Participant Dimakatso Machetele said on the Freedom Ride Facebook page: “Was hard … But yet had fun. Big-up to Jozi, participants, the organisers of the ride and everyone who was there in assisting the running of the whole ride.”

    Another rider, Margaret Sylvester, said: “Great ride … But creating an expectation of 35 kilometres on a route that is actually 54 kilometres is unacceptable. I felt really sorry for the kids, the parents towing their kids and the guys who don’t normally cycle and just wanted a fun morning out on their bicycles. Pity that this negative point outweighed all the positives of this ride for everyone on the way back.”

    And Johan Vorster added: “There are some valid comments especially regarding expectations of distance. Lucky it was a cool day. Also safety, potholes, sweepers, etc. But for those who could manage it, it was a hugely satisfying experience. Will definitely be back.”

    The concept

    The Freedom Ride was the brainchild of Crispian Olver and a group of friends. Olver is a former director-general in the department of environmental affairs and tourism, and now the founder and chief executive of Linkd Environmental Services. He is also a sports cyclist.

    He said that by coincidence he and his friends were talking about “taking cycling forward in the city”, on the night of 5 December, the night Mandela died. “We decided that night that we would start with the idea and not wait for the city. We wanted to build up a mass movement.”

    But then with his death, an important dimension was added. “We wanted to connect communities, from town to township, the rich and the poor, black and white, and make the route accessible to most people. It was to be a social ride. It just unfolded from there,” he explained. “It gathered massive momentum. An event that would normally take a year to organise, was done in two months.”

    Plans for the next event

    It was important not to have a race, said Olver, but they did need riders to register, as an aid to the logistics, like supplying water stations and making sure there were enough emergency personnel on the ground. At present the organisers are busy evaluating the success of the ride, as a first step to organising the next one.

    Initial suggestions are to consider a ride that takes in the northern suburbs that have significance for where Mandela had connections. These would include his Houghton home, his backyard room in Alexandra township, Mandela Square in Sandton, and Liliesleaf Farm, where the ANC had its underground headquarters, and where the top echelons of the party were arrested in 1963. They were subsequently sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964. It has been restored and is now a museum. Mandela lived there for a short while in disguise as a gardener.

    Another suggestion is to have two rides each year, one in winter, another in summer. What is coming out of the ride is the start of plans for a Bicycle Empowerment Centre in Orlando West in Soweto, where youngsters in the suburb will be trained in bicycle repair, and given professional training in riding.

    The City of Johannesburg is also constructing cycle lanes in various suburbs. A 5km route is being created in Orlando West; a cycling and walking path is planned between Sandton and Alexandra in northern Joburg, to be called the Great Walk; a 15km cycling route is being constructed between the University of Johannesburg and Wits University. Eventually it will continue to Park Station in the CBD, and in time extend to Ellis Park, just east of the CBD.

    “The city is committed to increasing cycling as a commuter mode of transport as well as increasing the number of learners that can safely cycle to school,” indicates Joburg’s Strategic Integrated Transport Plan Framework.