Stan Engelbrecht and Nic Grobler interviewed more than 500 South African cyclists on their journey. What follows are some excerpts from those interviews.

"The bike is for me to do the work of selling some medicines, you see. I travel with the bike to get some herbs and medicines on the mountains. I do healing of the people and selling medicines - for a living. I pick up some plants in the mountains, so I’m heading to the mountains now - it’s the usual work I do. I look for any kind of special herbs, you know, for drinking - usual stuff. I sell it to the communities. I’ve been cycling for about three years, I enjoy it for sure. For keeping fitness too."--Western Cape’s Asher Tafara

"I’ve rode all over with this bike--even as far as Harrismith, Frankfort, Tweeling and Reitz. Since 1967, it’s an old bicycle! Old! I’ve got carriers for the front and back, I’ve taken off the font one, but if I go load, I put it on. I hope my children will also get into cycling in the future so that they can go to new places."--Free State province’s Amos Mphuti.

"I’m off to go and sell this bicycle as I don’t have the rest of the parts working anymore or money to fix it. I’m going to the scrap yard. They weigh it there, maybe they’ll give me R12 or R11. I already took the wheels. When the bicycle was working I used it everyday--people sent me to fetch things."--Northern Cape’s Edward September

"This bike is a bit customized, it’s been coming along for 13 or 14 years already. It’s been through off-road riding, it’s been ramped--my friend even towed me with a motorbike. I held his hand [as] he pulled me down the N1 highway. The fastest he said we were going was 140km/h - then my front bearing seized up and the wheel locked. I went over the bars. When I was younger I rode BMX and stuff. I’ve broken everything--legs, arms, even hurt my back. Been to the ICU. Been all over."--Cape Town’s Johan Schade

"Sjoo, I’ve had this bike for four years now already. I ride it every morning, every night. To farms, anywhere, any place, wherever. On the back here I have a bag of fruit--apricots. I just picked them up from where I work--they were for the pigs. And on the front here, my pliers. And my pump. Tools for the bicycle. All I need. This bicycle means many things for me, so I can say, I like him. I call him Tomzanele--it means 'the last servant girls.' It is also my daughter’s name."--Hofmeyr’s Kleinbooi Tonies

"From 1974 until 1987 I was in a lot of jails, all kinds of jails. Every time I got difficult at one jail I would get sent to the next one. I was in 14 different jails. Big jails. I was a troublesome guy. But sometimes being troublesome helped to get me out of jail quicker--they wanna get you rehabilitated quicker. But now I’m really rehabilitated, for the rest of my life. …They still arrest me now and then for skyf (marijuana) but I just pay the R200 cash fine before I go to court--then it’s not really a crime. I don’t want to talk about my real crimes but it was a big history… My cycling, I’ve been riding for 12 years and I enjoy it. This is my tenth bicycle--every winter I have to pawn my bicycle at the pawn shop because I don’t have work. Then when I get money again I have to go a fetch my bike, and sometimes it’s gone. Then I have to get another one."--George’s John Jacobs

"In the morning I ride to work, and then I go and fetch the kids from noon onwards. First I collect Zilke from school and then I fetch Aldo. Zilke goes on the back and Aldo on the front and there we go. Luckily it’s all downhill to here. We have lunch at my parents’ and then we go home. This bike was a hand-me-down from my brother. It’s an old, old bike--a Bomber, so he didn’t want to ride it anymore. But it’s a good bike--it doesn’t have a lot of gears--only 1 and that’s forward. It’s all I need."--Free State’s Mulna van Niekerk (with Zilke and Aldo)

Mabutsetsa Mpeete

Alfred Ndamane

Pieter Engelbrecht

Co.Design

Photo Essay: South Africa's Thriving DIY Bike Culture

Stan Engelbrecht and Nic Grobler set out on two-year, 4,000-mile bike tour to document South African life on two wheels. The resulting portraits tell the story of the nation’s cyclists and, in a way, the nation itself.

You can tell a lot about a place by its bike culture. Take Denmark, where ruddy-cheeked cyclists peddling to work in rain, sleet or snow reveal the heartier instincts of a highly evolved social democracy or San Francisco, where sullen Mission 20-somethings hurtle down hills on fixed gears—a window onto the defiant (some might say idiotic) individualism embedded in the city’s DNA. South Africa’s bike enthusiasts tell a more complicated story, in many ways because there are so few of them, especially in the big cities.

Eager to change that, bike evangelists Stan Engelbrecht and Nic Grobler set out on a Herculean, Kickstarter-funded bike tour to document South African life on two wheels. Two years and thousands of miles later, they compiled assorted interviews and photographs into Bicycle Portraits, a three-volume study of the motley characters for whom bicycles are a primary means of transportation in a country drunk on cars.

"Taking numerous trips across South Africa over the two years, we cycled more than 4,000 miles and met people mostly from our bicycles, often riding alongside them and spending from 15 minutes to two days with each of them," Grobler tells Co.Design in an email. "We interviewed over 500 people in total." Just 162 portraits made into the books. That includes Stephanie Baker, a white, English-born retired nurse, who at 83 still putters around on her bike in Sunnyside, Pretoria, a neighborhood typically dismissed as too dangerous for cyclists. That also includes Amos Mphuti, a middle-aged black man from South Africa’s Free State province, who owns a rickety 1967 bicycle and has "rode all over" with it. "I hope my children will also get into cycling in the future so that they can go to new places," he told Grobler and Engelbrecht.

"This is ironic in a way," Grobler says. "Much of the generation following him look down on the use of the bicycle and attach progress and wealth to owning a car rather than a bicycle. The bicycle is often thought of as a transport mode for the poor, and this stigma is often what keeps people from using the bicycle in the first place."

Grobler and Engelbrecht raised more than $41,000 for Bicycle Portraits through three Kickstarter campaigns. "Pledges were mostly taken in the form of pre-orders for the books," Grobler says. "The funds partially funded the production and printing of the book. The most valuable aspect of Kickstarter for us has been the community and following it has created around the project."

Take a look at our slideshow to learn more about the cyclists Grobler and Engelbrecht encountered on their journey. To order the books, one of which includes an essay by JM Coetzee, go here. A set of three costs $100.

Add New Comment

0 Comments