The Bicycle Portraitsby Brandon Edmonds / 03.08.2012
It’s taken more than two years and over 6000 cycled kilometers, countless falls, phone calls, head colds and punctures – not to mention the kindness of strangers – but the 3-volume record of Nic Grobler and Stan Engelbrecht’s remarkable journey Bicycle Portraits: Everyday South Africans and their bicycles is finally done. The project chronicles the lives of South Africans who use bicycles as a day-to-day means of transport. The book came out in March and was immediately essential.
A teeming, fascinating, and ultimately life-affirming ride. As a contributor puts it: “There’s this idea that cycling is only for poor people, but it should be for everyone. It’s the cheapest and easiest means of transport.” A lasting legacy of our divided past remains the woefully inadequate, crowded and often dangerous public transport system millions of South Africans are forced to endure. On top of that is the fact that we’re one of the fattest nations on earth according to international studies. Put the two together and the bicycle begins to seem like a no-brainer. Works for China. Why not here?
Bicycle Portraits is quietly political in that sense. It advocates change by listening to and noticing a democratic array of regular folk who simply tell us about the bicycles in their lives. A trusted old conveyance (fashioned from other parts, bent and battered, the worse for wear) comes to seem noble and prized – a magical tool, a bit of fun, a reliable companion and life- saver. This is the best possible argument for a radical re-thinking of public transport. Bicycle Portraits shows how much a part of so many lives bicycles already are. The energy-scarce future means cyclists like the people in the book are not kooks or exceptions, they’re solutions, they’re pioneers; they’re not mad in the head, they’re way out ahead of public policy – showing us by example what needs to be done if we’re to live responsibly and progress as a society.
“It doesn’t have a lot of gears – just one and that’s forward,” Mulna van Niekerk says. “It’s all I need.” Searchmore Kabatchi from Tembisa: “My kids are still young but I want to teach them how to ride, just like me. Wherever I go I take my bike.” Bicycles help put food on the table. They get students to class. They’re practical family heirlooms. People in the book have love/hate relationships with their bicycles. Some can’t go a day without them. “I cycle because it is not easy for me to walk,” a woman says. She was in an accident that left her brain damaged. “They designed this bicycle for me and came up with the name ‘Vinnige Fanie’.” You can’t make that up. You have to hit the road and talk to people. You have to put in the hours and get close to people, be allowed into their lives. This is what Bicycle Portraits does. “It means everything to me,” Remo Baker from KwaNothula says about his bicycle. Esau Ngwenya from Mphumalanga is going to pass his bike on to his eldest son. “Cycling saves me money,” Johannes Diko from Kayamandi says.
The blurb at the back of the book is on the money for once: “a portrait of a nation through its commuter subculture – uncovering all manner of societal, historical and cultural nuances never imagined.” Nic and Stan rode through Johannesburg, up the Maluti mountains and ‘braved the blustery West Coast’. They got sunburnt, rained on and knocked over. Through Durban and Maputo. On and on. The result is popular oral history and a visual social record of the bicycle in South African lives. The book is going to last because it’s real. The people it reveals are you and me.
*Visit Bicycle Portraits online to see the over 500 portraits that make up the Bicycle Portraits project.