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Bicycle Portraits

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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  1. Dog says:

    Someone stole my bicycle. Nice story. Who penned it?

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  2. Stan Engelbrecht says:

    Hey Dog. Sorry to hear it… perhaps we could have photographed you on the way to work! Keep riding!

    The article is by Brandon Edmonds, serious commuter cyclist himself…

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  3. Stan Engelbrecht says:

    I’ve asked Mahala to correct the link to our Kickstarter page, but it the meantime go to – http://kck.st/c09uOF – to have a look at our pledge-for-reward page.

    Kickstarter is a pledge-for-reward social platform. There is a complete breakdown of our project below the video section detailing our reasons, process and goals. We love the idea of getting the project funded by a group of like-minded individuals who want to see our project succeed, and it feels good to be able to give something back to them (in this case a copy of the actual book, with benefits). This process feels more in line with the spirit of cycling.

    A $50 pledge for instance is essentially a pro-order of a copy of the book (with benefits)…

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  4. P says:

    Great article. Never gonna drive again…starting tomorrow…and I’ll make a pledge.

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  5. Stan Engelbrecht says:

    Hey P. Hope to run into you on your bike somewhere! We’ll shoot your for the book if we do.

    Ride safe!

    Thanks for offering to pledge! Tell EVERYONE!

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  6. Heather Moore says:

    Fantastic article and excellent cause. My husband (Paul Edmunds, relentless bicycle commuter) and I are in NYC right now, both with our bikes, and are in love with a) how easy it is to get around by bike, and b) how courteous drivers are towards cyclists and pedestrians. Car culture is a mess, but South African car culture borders on the insane. Seriously, I’m dreading going back home. Drivers in SA (including myself) are homicidal maniacs.

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  7. Drifter says:

    I like what is happening here – the time has come to kick ass! Where I live – on the Wild Coast most real people walk and if you think that cyclists have it bad, here people are dodging cars and cars are dodging people and every so often someone gets flattened and you can guess who that someone is and they are not riding in cars. The reason why people don’t ride or walk, grow their own veg and shit in the woods is fundamentally due to fact that society at large is not well. And the disease, in case you were wondering, is Money. Alas I might not see the day but I reckon the days are numbered. My kids might see the end of all this bullshit and we will all go back to cycling around and we will be the lucky ones. The rest of us will have to walk. I will keep an eye on you guys – good luck. Might even pledge something even if it has to be money although there are some interesting alteratives I am working on.

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  8. Stan Engelbrecht says:

    Hey Drifter. Thank you. A pledge would be great but we’ll consider ‘alternatives’! Take it easy out there in the Wild Coast, and if you do ride, ride safely… let’s take back the road!

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  9. Hardy says:

    Nice 1 Stan… when u coming to shoot my Mongoose BMX?

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  10. Stan Engelbrecht says:

    Tell me what time you leave for work in the morning and I’ll track you down!

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  11. Stan Engelbrecht says:

    Mahala, Mahala!

    The link in the last paragraph to our pledge-for-reward Kickstarter page should be –


    Please fix it for us!


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  12. Tess says:

    Hey Stan..once again a brilliant project! I can’t pledge, but can offer up Haas as a sale point..
    All the best

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  13. Stan Engelbrecht says:

    Thanks Tess! We’ll make sure you have copies on your shelves the second the books arrive in Cape Town!

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  14. brandon edmonds says:

    It’s Bike to Work Day in Washington tomorrow. No reason we can’t get it on here.


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  15. trust says:

    need to first learn how to ride and then i’ll join the movement!

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  16. kbd says:

    I have African Salad… I treasure it. Looking forward to Bicycle Portraits! Look for my pledge later.

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  17. wipneusie says:


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  18. […] In the meantime please have a look at this article by Brandon Edmonds on Bicycle Portraits. […]

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