Best of 2012 | White Riderby Nicky Falkof / Images by Laura Burocco / 29.12.2012
Originally published 04 September 2012
One of the things that’s struck me the most since I moved back to Joburg is the recognisable presence of a global middle class. Sometimes this is amusing – hipsters in Braamfontein are indistinguishable from hipsters in Hackney, Berlin or Williamsburg, and oh look, is that a Lomo shop? – and sometimes it’s disturbing: Sandton is expanding like ectoplasm out of a ‘50s B-movie. The arrival of Critical Mass in SA, while very different, suggests something similar: this is a global place with global concerns.
The idea started out in San Francisco in 1992. It involves a loose group of cyclists getting together on the first Friday of every month and riding through the streets of their city en masse to make various points about bikes having a right to the roads, about our dependence on fossil fuels, about cyclists’ physical vulnerability, about people rather than corporate interests taking ownership of the city, or even just about the joy of being on a bicycle. They generally ignore traffic information, piss off motorists, wear stupid outfits and cause at least a little bit of havoc. It’s a cycling protest that comes out of radical green and squatting culture, and whether or not you dismiss the whole idea because you hate hippies, it makes a valuable point about the way societies and cities work. The arrest of a group of Critical Mass cyclists in London on the night of the Olympic opening ceremony is a good indicator of the oppositional, counter-cultural tone of these events.
Like a lot of other things that arrive here, though, Critical Mass has been through a bizarre process of Joburgification. My first thought on turning up at the starting point on Friday night was that it looks nothing like the rides I’ve seen and been on elsewhere. While I realise there are legitimate concerns about distance and safety, it’s still jarring to see people arrive at what’s often an environmental protest driving enormous SUVs with top-of-the range bikes strapped to the back. The lycra-clad significantly outnumbered the non-lycra-clad. Maybe I’m missing a trick here but I don’t think you really need high priced branded sports gear for a gentle three-hour pedal. There were plenty of weirdos – my own bike gang was enlivened by a hi-vis Evil Knievel, fairy lights, some star-spangled leggings, a disco ball and a fuckload of glitter – but a lot of people seemed to view Critical Mass as a sporting event rather than as cycling activism.
Nonetheless it’s hard to be cynical about something that lets you ride through the inner city at night, even when being cynical is what you do best. The ride starts in Braamfontein (another contingent comes in from Illovo, probably because this is Joburg and if you’re doing something active you want it to hurt) and goes through Fordsburg, Selby, Newtown, down to Main Street, and then into Hillbrow, which I missed after getting distracted by the mid-point lager break. Once I’d gotten over my shock at the fact that Critical Mass was full of Serious Cyclists rather than dreadlocked loons, and that there seemed to be only one sound system and it wasn’t playing reggae, I quickly realised that the best bit of this ride isn’t the people you’re doing it with; it’s the people watching. All the way through town folks were standing on the side of the road or popping out of shebeens to watch, heckle, cheer, high five and otherwise show their amusement at the apparently astonishing sight of hundreds of people on bikes zooming around after dark. My personal highlight was the Muslim woman in full hijab taking photos of the white riders, a marvellous reversal of the usual arrangement of who looks at who.
I think this is what the Joburg ride does best. It gives (largely white) suburban tourists a chance to feel that they can legitimately be in the city, that they’re not at risk or out of place, and concurrently it deghettoises those spaces, makes them, even if only slightly, less threatening and less foreign to the cyclists. I’m not as sure what benefit it has for people who live or spend their leisure time in town, other than a moment’s amusement; I’d like to think that it suggests the possibilities of riding bikes and adds some cultural diversity to areas that are still largely defined by race. (I can’t be sure though because, constrained by my own middle class-ness, I don’t know who to ask.) But it gets people out of their cars/houses/estates and onto the streets, it changes the ways in which spaces are used and moved through, it makes people see other sorts of people, it allows individuals to feel like they have access to their city, it’s new and different, all of which can only be good.
My reservation is that the majority of riders seem to view cycling as a hobby or a sport rather than as a mode of transport, which is where its radical potential for changing cities and empowering citizens lies. I don’t think bikes are the answer to Joburg’s transport problems – for people living in Soweto and working in town, the distances are too great and it would take impossible amounts of infrastructural money to make the roads safe for commuters – but for people in or near the city cycling could minimise the danger, expense and environmental consequences of the taxis’ stranglehold on transport. The Joburg ride, while definitely a mass, is not yet critical enough to suggest these possibilities.
We ended our night full of whiskey and enthusiasm at a hipster joint off Juta Street and then rode home which, without the protection of hundreds of other cyclists, felt like a very edgy way of being on the streets. This is the main reason why the ride is valuable: the more people cycle, the more used to it we all get, the more possible it’ll become to stay out of cars, taxis and buses and to take over the streets we live in. And, I am both pleased and surprised to report, the streets we live in are beautiful.
*Get on your bike (preferably not in spandex), explore your city and tell us about it. Check out the Cape Town Levi’s Commuter Map for some hints ‘n tips. And watch this space for the Joburg Levi’s Commuter Map… dropping soon!
**All images © Laura Burocco.