In South Africa, Imagining Bicycles as a Vehicle for Empowerment

Bicyclists are hard to come by in South Africa. Two authors have gone in search of the reasons why a country with "so much poverty, often unwalkable commuter distances, and poor public transportation," lacks a larger bike culture.
December 31, 2012, 7am PST | Jonathan Nettler | @nettsj
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Robyn Dixon reports on the work of animator Nic Grobler and photographer Stan Engelbrecht, whose website,, and three photo books, all called "Bicycle Portraits," seek to document South Africa's fledgling bicycle culture and understand why so few utilize a tool they believe "could change the lives of threadbare South Africans."

"What they found, after about 4,000 miles of cycling, 500 interviews and countless punctures, was that South African bicyclists are like those in many nations without a strong bike commuting culture: fearless, adventurous, thick-skinned and, often, more than a little eccentric," writes Dixon. "We both believe that bicycles could really empower people in South Africa, where so many people rely on poor public transport infrastructure," Engelbrecht said. "People have to travel great distances to work. People really struggle with movement here."

"Unfortunately, they said, there is a stigma attached to bicycles that may have originated in the apartheid era of racial segregation, when companies issued free bicycles to miners and other lowly black workers."

"As we went around the entire country, we found that cyclists are often eccentric, or a little bit outsiders. They're often flamboyant. They embrace eccentricity. They love their bikes. They're really proud of them," Engelbrecht said. "We felt we really wanted to celebrate these people."

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Published on Friday, December 28, 2012 in Los Angeles Times
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