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Bicycle Portraits

by Brandon Edmonds / 19.05.2010

The great oral historian, Studs Terkel, whose books were always thrillingly immediate and resolutely about “everyday people”, once said: “I’m seeing something and I’m not standing silent about it. Humans are pushed out to make room for cars.” We can take that on at least two levels: the great macro level of global urban sprawl, the loss of neighborhoods and community to privatized transportation, and the intimate daily experience of walkers and riders, grazed and bumped, knocked over and near missed. Urban planning privileges cars. Economies churn away in homage to the oil cars guzzle. Foreign policies routinely involve invasions thanks to the appetite of motor vehicles. This third rock from the sun is literally imperiled by industrial habits and a car culture that keeps on turning up the heat. The urgency of all this, the encroaching calamity, seems lost on us, the “possessing classes”, as we go on comparing handbags and ordering drinks. If we were in a movie, our complacency would make the audience laugh out loud in pitying disgust. Alright, I’ll remove the parping Tuba of Despair from my lips, and bring on the good news.

One of the highest, most lasting achievements in recent South African publishing is, of all things, a cookbook. It’s called African Salad: a Portrait of South Africans at Home (2005) by Stan Engelbrecht and Tamsin de Beer. It is, as our own Sean O’Toole puts it in the foreword, “an unashamed celebration of things simply as they are”. No bullshit, in short. The book gives us family recipes and warm, affecting glimpses into other people’s fascinating lives. There’s frikkadels, ostrich mince, sheep biltong and brinjal stew. There’s new year’s koeksisters and Sunday roast.
We see kitchens and sunny suburban streets, front rooms, shacks and swimming pools. There’s peppermint crisp and caramel desert. You begin to glow with real empathy with each page turned. Engelbrecht’s photo’s are serenely moving. Here is our country at its generous, open –hearted best. It’s a book you really ought to have.

We spoke to Stan about his latest project: Bicycle Portraits: Everyday South Africans & their bicycles – a book in the making, and already threatening to be as quietly revelatory and essential as African Salad. He laments the ongoing worship of the car as “the ultimate status symbol” and remembers his dad’s torment growing up a poor kid: “They had one bicycle they shared. It was an embarrassment for him.” He often feels like his dad when people react to his own bicycle: “Jesus, don’t you have a car?” Not to get all oedipal on his ass, but its clear this bicycle book means a lot to Stan Engelbrecht. More than African Salad? No, but that book crucially taught him “everyone’s got something interesting to tell.” It’s all about “giving people a platform.” He was overwhelmed touring the country for his cookbook: “Everywhere I went people were feeding me and introducing me to their daughters!”

This is the strength of Engelbrecht’s (in collaboration with photographer Nic Grobler) approach: being open to what people have to say, unfiltered, experiencing their enthusiasm, in real time, hearing their stories and assembling a record of “popular voices”. This is no small thing. The media tends to rotate a bunch of experts and talking heads, smoothed over spokespeople and promoters. It makes for a skewered professional sense of South African reality.

Work like Bicycle Portraits and African Salad deepens our awareness of who’s out there and explodes the boxes people are so often squashed into by standard media practice.

Here’s a harbor fork-lift operator who rides to save money to “drink more” on weekends! He looks like a Parow Brando in On the Waterfront and you can instantly imagine his life. There’s 82 year old Stephanie Baker from Pretoria who puts her finger on how we ought to live now: “I’m not going to go around being frightened of things. Most people have good will.” David Mufamadi has some solid advice: “I can tell all people that if they’re thinking about getting a bicycle that it’s a great idea, and that they shouldn’t fuck with the taxi’s man!” There are encounters with world travelers, security guards, school kids and maniacs. You can find many more regular riders here.

Apartheid urban planning flung black workers far from urban centres in a noxious Victorian spasm of “out of sight out of mind”. The consequences bite deep daily. Many of the riders interviewed use their bicycles, as Engelbrecht says, “as necessary tools in their lives rather than as an expensive hobby or a weekend sport.” That R30 a day on taxi’s can be crippling to most laborers, the difference between a good meal and going without. Bicycles are begging to uplift the working class in this country. Mass bicycle transit would halve health bills and save millions annually for people who could really use the help.

But there just isn’t, as there is in Asia, a two wheel transport legacy in this country. Engelbrecht even rode out to Langa township recently, testing the possibilities of cycle-commuting, and was amazed at how close it is: “It’s like a few minutes yet nobody is riding it. They all take taxis that cost a lot and take much longer.”
Not to mention crash and burn, killing in the multiple.

The benumbing emphasis on crime, safety and assault in the media is obviously justified but it doesn’t have to be the end of the story: promoting cycling culture would ensure “more people are out and about, seeing the city in a different way and it would change their attitude. It makes me sad its not part of our culture.”

If making bicycles part of South African culture appeals to you, go here and pledge whatever you can to make the book happen and the project grow. “Ultimately we want to promote cycling as a means of independent transport to empower the underprivileged, and we hope this will lead to the kind of infrastructure development designed with all people in mind, not just cars.” Studs Terkel would be proud.

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