The global fossil fuel economy has created a complex network of connections between automobiles and poverty. On the most basic level, people without money tend to be people without cars. This simple fact is one of the major structural impediments to social justice in many parts of the world. Unemployed people tend to live in areas that are badly served by pubic transit – assuming they could afford it if they had access to it. And their children have to walk to school.
In some places, organizations are attempting to untie the knot that binds the car-less to their poverty. One such organization is BEN, the Bike Empowerment Network, established in Cape Town in 2002.
They run a threefold program importing used bicycles from Europe and China, lobbying for safe bike path networks, and distribution and training in schools and other organizations.
As they explain on their web site, the overall objective of poverty alleviation is built into each of these projects. Low Cost Mobility helps unemployed adults and youth find a way out of poverty. Providing affordable means of transport creates more opportunities for economic advancement and poverty alleviation. Training and job creation initiatives teach individuals to think creatively about jobs and entrepreneurial projects, linking the many uses of the bicycle to income generation activities. The project on bike lanes facilitates safe routes to schools/ work and also aims at facilitating safety of school children, pedestrians and commuters in general.
When I first lived in South Africa, Alexandra Township was just down the road, but for a white South African, it could have been on a different planet. The times I went there it was like falling into a time/space gulf. Red streets were either muddy or dusty, tin shacks, living conditions that were unimaginable for those lucky enough to live where white people lived.
Then it started to get dangerous. People said “don’t go there.”
This is the story of many South African townships as seen through the eyes of white people. Then came the township tour. Starting in the mid-nineties, visitors could see select aspects of township life up close, on foot, accompanied by a resident.
Two years ago, Jeffrey Mulaudzi started conducting tours of Alexandra by bicycle. As he says on his web site, the idea is to create an interest that will not only allow the people living in Alexandra to meet and see the tourists from outside the township, but to also give the community hope, to build their self-esteem and sense of worth.
Back in beautiful Cape Town, I’m immediately struck by how few bikes are on the roads here. Having cycled in this city for a long time, I know why. It’s too dangerous, there is no infrastructure, and no critical mass of cyclists to lobby for real road reform. This is typical of third world cities, and it is something that needs to be remedied if there are to be real world-wide alternatives to the culture of fossil fuel.
But the lack of urban cycists doesn’t mean that the bicycle has no place here. On the contrary, as in all things, South Africans are remarkably resourceful and innovative in their adoption of bicycle technology.
This photo shows Tanki Mohapeloa in his home-made trailer, which he uses to transport goods near the Lesotho border. It was taken by Stan Engelbrecht, a Cape Town photographer and bicycle enthusiast. Together with Nic Grobler, he recently completed a project on South African bicycle culture. The three-volume book Bicycle Portraits was inspired by the perveived lack of a cyclist commuter culture in South Africa. The entire project was shot from their bicycles while traveling around the country. It uncovers a remarkable culture of both mainstream and alternative cycling throughout the cities and rural areas of South Africa.
Tanki Mohapeloa stated: ‘It’s because of this bicycle that I am able to make money, so if you are going to give me more, I want it. I am a Mosotho and I hustle with this wagon. There are no jobs so I have made this my job. I take tourist’s luggage inside the wagon and it helps me to make a living. I can carry a cement bag in this. In this I carry every single thing. The people come and ask me to carry their cargo to certain destinations and then give me money. Anything that a car carries, I can carry with this as well. I can carry a bed with this… from Lesotho to South Africa. When I work hard, of course I sweat a lot, it is hard work. It’s not an easy thing to do…’