Portraits of South African Bike Commuters

Photographer Stan Engelbrecht, 35, and Nic Grobler, 31 cycle around South Africa. They strike up conversations with fellow cyclists they meet, and they take photos. These photos and conversations are the foundation of Bicycle Portraits, a book they are self-publishing.

They are funding the book using Kickstarter, and are now planning the third and final phase of fundraising before publishing the book, which can be pre-ordered online.

I interviewed the two South African natives about their project. Click on any of the photos to be taken to the relevant page on their project Website.

Commute by Bike (CbB): Your Web site says “few South Africans choose bicycles as a transport option.” What reasons have you found that keep South Africans off of bikes?

Nic and Stan
Nic (L) and Stan (R) | Photo: Michelle Son

Nic: There is fear of the roads and cars most of the time, especially from what is known as the local taxi’s who are known to have their own set of road rules. This might be true in most countries but it is quite extreme here. Crime and physical danger are also often cited. There is the idea that you are more vulnerable on a bicycle. The truth is that you are vulnerable to varying degrees in you car as well. Aside from all the reasons people give we’ve found that those that do cycle often have just become used to it or have been introduced to it many years ago. It is more like a mental block than anything else.

Stan: Then there is also the stigma of not being successful if you ride a bicycle instead of driving a car. Because of South Africa’s racially segregated past and extreme class division there has always been a strong focus on equality, and I believe that this has had an impact on bicycle ownership and created a strong desire to own a car and project an image of success. Another thing to consider is that often amongst black cultures in South Africa it is not accepted for women to ride bicycles so they just never learn. Women often stay behind at their rural homesteads with the families while the men travel to the cities to find work, and especially in the rural areas it makes sense to cycle instead of walking the great distances to collect water and supplies etc.

CbB: When you approached cyclists to get their stories, what were some of the varied attitudes you encountered regarding the purpose of your book.

Stan: Since we encounter and shoot all our subjects from our own bicycles I think that there is an instant bond between us and the people we come across. We very, very seldom meet anybody who is not willing to at least spend a few minutes talking to us about their bicycles and their their lives. I think people enjoy the fact that someone is interested in their lives and what they have to say–so much sometimes that it’s difficult to get away!

Nic: People seem to understand and catch the vision of the project quite quickly and are willing to give some time to us, we often have fun and experience the interviews with a kindred spirit.

CbB: It would be easy to assume that in a stratified society such as South Africa’s that economic status was a large factor in whether people use bikes for recreation, or for utility. Is this a false assumption?

Nic: Economic reasons are often cited for reasons to cycle, but in the same breath most would say fitness is also important to them, even if the bicycle is their only means of transport.

Johan Witbooi
'It's changed my life since I got it - I get to my jobs and I get better jobs now, and it keeps me fit. I'm into sport, soccer and stuff.' --Johan Witbooi

On the other hand there are also wealthy people who have had the opportunity to see cycling in a new light. Take for instance Arnold van Zyl, who leaves his large Mercedes at home and cycles to his meetings – he says it is actually more efficient for him. It is interesting to see that he lived in Belgium for eight years. We believe most will overcome their fear or dislike of cycling by just trying it out.

Arnold van Zyl
"˜I cycle from here everyday to work, and I cycle all over Stellenbosch "“ because it is quicker, I see much more and I encounter interesting people.' --Arnold van Zyl

Apart from utility and fitness reasons there are often mentions of just experiencing or seeing the world in a different way and at a different pace. It connects people to their surroundings and also creates opportunity for more social interaction.

Stephanie Baker
"˜At least I can get around and see the beauty of the place too.' --Stephanie Baker

Stan: There are also currently quite a few programs locally (that rely on donations of bicycles and equipment etc.) that make it possible and encourage youngsters from underprivileged backgrounds to get into cycling as a sport. They train together, they have coaches, train up mechanics to maintain the bicycles and enter and race in competitions.

Britney Koopman
' My favorite thing to do with the bicycle is just to ride around. I like it because It gives me energy.' --Britney Koopman

The programs often start as ways to keep young kids off drugs, off the streets, and out of crime. But it offers them so much more actually. They learn teamwork, they get fit and stay healthy, and they learn to be proud of and to look after their equipment. Then at the moment people are becoming much more aware of the benefits of cycling, and with the introduction of many dedicated cycling lanes in our major cities we are seeing a great many new commuters out there from all walks of life and economic spheres.

Zimisele Magwevana
Zimisele Magwevana has become a serious competitive cyclist because of a community based cycling program.

As a homeless man Henry Nxumalo has a long history with cycling and has a dream to compete in the Cape Argus Cycling Tour, but the recently cycle lane that now passes close to where he lives under a bridge has negatively impacted on his day-to-day life.

CbB: What are your perceptions of the trend for bike commuting in South Africa?

Stan: It seems to be very fashionable at the moment to ride a bicycle around here, but we don’t care–as long as everyone keeps riding! A lot of people are of the opinion that the city of Cape Town has wasted a lot of money on our cycle lane system because so few people are using it, but the more people who ride the better for the public perception of commuting and our cycle lanes.

Henry Nxumalo
Henry Nxumalo

Nic: It is growing for sure and there are definitely more commuting bicycles popping up in the media. One of our hopes are that it will become more than just a trend or a ‘new thing’. Slow steady proper growth in the right direction is what we need.

CbB: What assumptions of yours were challenged and changed through making of this book?

Nic: We try our best to approach the project with quite open minds and with no clear set of ideas and assumptions about what we want to do or what we will experience. There have been quite a few things that do challenge us though. It has been quite humbling to see and meet people that are so resilient and positive in the face of so much hardship. Having said that there is also another side of the story where it is so clear and actually maddening to see how much the structure and leadership of a society affects the everyday person and the way they move around. Not just the cyclists are battling out there–everyone is. Especially those who walk so much and have to cross highways without proper paths. This all depends on how you look at it though. I often pity the people in the cars, especially when they are stuck in traffic on a hot day. What a horrible experience!

Bernard Kehoe
Bernard Kehoe recently started commuting only because of the new cycle lanes in Cape Town

Stan: I was saddened by the fact that there we’re way fewer cyclists out there than I imagined initially. Considering how empowering owning a bicycle can be, and how much money can be saved on a monthly basis, I still can’t understand way so many people choose to put up with our unsafe and unreliable public transport.

CbB: Can you elaborate about the “unsafe and unreliable public transport?” Cycling advocates in the USA tend to think of public transport as complimentary to cycling. They speak positively of multi-modal commuting. Why would this not be the case in South Africa?

Stan: In South Africa we have a great problem with associated mini-bus taxi organizations. These Taxi Associations are guilty of everything from facilitating illegal kangaroo courts to violent turf wars–literally driving like they own the road and endangering passengers by overloading vehicles to extorting customers when other means of transport are not functioning, bribery and threats against local government whenever new public transport improvement are made that affect their revenue. It is a massive, out-of-control problem here. Then our train system is in complete disarray. Frequently trains are simply not running because of anything from electrical cable theft to staff and driver strikes. When they are running they mostly run late. There are constant security problems as many people get mugged or worse on the trains in off-peak hours. Our national train service currently has only one line running, their website had not worked for months and it doesn’t look like the situation will improve. There is talk of it being suspended permanently. The bus transit system is doing no better as it is also crippled by corruption, mismanagement and poor equipment maintenance. It’s a miracle anybody ever gets to where they are going relying on this system"¦

CbB: What were the best things to come out of making this book, both for yourselves and one or more of the subjects of the book?

Stan: Having an excuse to spend even more time on my bicycle! And of course giving ordinary South Africans a platform to express themselves and to celebrate them and the choices that they have made to become part of sub-conscious sub-culture that actually does not only a lot for their own health and sanity but has a great impact on our environment.

Nic: Having and sharing something joyful with people from all walks of life. It is great to have something like a bicycle as a reason to stop and talk to strangers.

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