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Jim Calio

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Soweto By Bike (PHOTOS)

Posted: 03/21/2012 7:00 am

The answer to the first question is, yes, Soweto is where they had all those riots. But the answer to your second question is no, Soweto is far less dangerous than you think, especially now that tourism has begun to flourish.

In the last few years, Soweto, like many other parts of Johannesburg and, more broadly, South Africa, has turned the corner. Today, it is a mixed area, a combination of grinding poverty and new construction, businesses and homes. You can still see the dilapidated metal shacks that blight huge areas; they sit near elegant new homes, some worth millions, contained by security fences. Every sort of dwelling has a satellite dish.

One of the youngest and most dynamic Soweto entrepreneurs is named Lebo Malepa. He's the owner of a bicycle tour company Lebo's Soweto Backpackers, which does a thriving business with tourists from South Africa, Europe and the U.S.

He believes that you can better see Soweto from the ground, or, in this case, the seat of a bicycle rolling down the hilly streets, than from an air conditioned tour bus.

"You can't really experience a place if you're in a tour bus or even in a car," he says. "Only on foot or by bike can you feel a real connection to the local people."

Lebo offers two-hour, four-hour or full-day bicycle tours of Soweto. Each tour is guided by a member of his staff and the bikes are kept in shape by a mechanic and trainees from the neighborhood.

In fact, it's the neighborhood that provided the working capital for his business, which he began in 2003. Until then, Lebo was selling crafts outside a local museum but felt that tourists were missing something essential.

"I started using borrowed bicycles and had to share the profits with the owners," he says. "I later bought three and now I have about 50 bikes. When we need more than 50 bikes we rent from a youth group in the area that's involved in a bicycle project. The money for the bicycle rentals goes directly to the youth program."

Among the stops on the tours: Nelson Mandela's former house on Vilakazi Street (fellow Nobel Prize winner Desmond Tutu also lived there), the Hector Peterson Memorial and a Museum in honor of the 12-year-old boy who was killed in the 1976 uprising. There is also a "shebeen," or makeshift Soweto bar. New restaurants are springing up daily and the nightlife is vibrant.

Lego's bicycle tours have been recommended by several major guidebooks, and last year's FIFA World Cup certainly helped put Soweto on the map as a possible tourist destination. The opening and final matches were held at the FNB, or Soccer Stadium, in Soweto.

Lebo, 35, whose parents were active in the anti-apartheid movement, works out of his family home in Soweto's Orlando section; the house also doubles as a small bed and breakfast catering to backpackers. The bicycles are lined up in racks outside.

He works closely with several tour operators in South Africa and arranges for pickup and delivery of clients at their hotels in one of his two six-seater Toyota vans.

Security is always a concern for people visiting South Africa, and that's especially true of Johannesburg, which has a negative reputation as far as crime goes. Lebo addresses that concern head on. "Walking around here is a lot safer than wandering Johannesburg's city center," he says. "Soweto is a very friendly place. But for those who don't feel comfortable going alone I am happy to act as a guide. We have bikes for hire and we are always ready to accompany our guests for the day."

As for the future, Lebo is focused on expanding his business.

"We have plans to franchise tours all through townships in South Africa," he says.

Lebo's Soweto Backpackers works with the following tour operators in South Africa:
Fairfield Tours (www.fairfieldtours.com) , New Frontiers Tours www.newfrontierstours.co.za) , Springbok Atlas (www.springbokatlas.co.za) ,and Thompsons Africa (www.thompsons.co.za) .

Entering Soweto
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