Maverick Citizen

NATION-BUILDING BY BIKE

‘A spirit to ride is a spirit to build’ – 10 Soweto cyclists get ready to rock go2berg

‘A spirit to ride is a spirit to build’ – 10 Soweto cyclists get ready to rock go2berg
Bontle Phepiso: 'The reason I started cycling was to keep myself busy as I enjoy the sport, and to stay away from bad things that are happening in the outside world. But now I enjoy it very much and I want to become the best from it' | Siyabonga Ntsele: 'Soweto Rocks developed me and shaped me to become who I am today and I'll be forever grateful to them' | Busi Msimango, aka 'MamaB', founder of Soweto Rocks. (Photos: Supplied)

On the edge of Soweto the Enoch Sontonga koppie is a spot Soweto Rocks founder Busi Msimango has long had big ideas for. Named after the famous composer of ‘Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika’, these days it’s a site for bird watchers and nyaope addicts. But in Msimango’s dream it’s a bike park where young Sowetans can ride and fulfil their own dreams of becoming professional cyclists.

Msimango is one of those visionaries whose ideas and enthusiasm South Africa should be building on. Back in 2013 she quit her job as promotions manager and sponsorship specialist at MultiChoice, where she was a rising star, to set up a cycling academy in Soweto which she named Soweto Rocks. 

Msimango says that, despite being aware of the financial risks, “I left the corporate sector to establish a Mountain Bike (MTB) Park in Soweto, to grow the sport and build coexistence”. 

Arguing that “nothing is impossible”, her “sails to the wind” approach has been her mantra. Her big idea: a proper MTB tour hosting international and local riders through the dunes and mines surrounding Soweto, one “that connects people through experiences, changes perceptions and grows passion in an effort to realise an inclusive SA”. 

Part of her idea was to cultivate interest in a sport in which black South Africans have – up to now – had little stake, and seed it in Soweto, a city where nearly two million people live. Doing this would offer a form of recreation for young people, who otherwise have little to do to distract themselves and consequently often end up in crime and drugs. 

Thando Ngwenya: ‘For the past five years cycling has been my passion, my escape, and my ultimate source of joy.’ (Photo: Supplied)

Ten years later, Msimango’s deeply disappointed at the fact that a community as large as Soweto still doesn’t have safe cycling facilities for young people, whereas she says there have been important developments, building cycling parks that are more accessible to other black communities. She cites the Northern Farm MTB park that hosts the Diepsloot Mountain Bike Academy as an example.

I must say, Soweto Rocks developed me and shaped me to become who I am today and I’ll be forever grateful to them.

However, establishing Soweto Rocks has not been easy. On the day I speak to her, Msimango is down in the dumps. Despite her best efforts, and the connections she has established within the cycling community, she complains that in Soweto “if you are not part of politics (read ANC politics), you don’t get support, you don’t get a slice of the cake”. 

So, at this point the cycle park remains a dream. 

Despite this she and her team have mapped out several fascinating routes across and beyond Soweto, including on the ubiquitous yellow mine dumps that still ring parts of the township. I’ve ridden with her and can attest to how exhilarating and unusual the route is.   

However, Msimango’s dream is down but not out. She underestimates the way her spirit and grit have inspired an embryonic community of young cyclists, who regard her with reverence and look up to her as their “MamaB”.

A group of more than 20 youngsters frequently congregate at Busi Msimango’s home in Jabulani and through her inspiration have managed to cobble together bikes, connections and in some cases contracts as young pro cyclists. (Photo: Mark Heywood)

A group of more than 20 youngsters frequently congregate at her home in Jabulani and through her inspiration have managed to cobble together bikes, connections and in some cases contracts as young pro cyclists. 

Siyabonga Ntsele (20) is one of them. He now rides for the Exxaro Mountain Bike Academy. Ntsele says Soweto Rocks “taught me how a mountain bike works. They helped me to become who I am today, a pro athlete.”  

Ntsele recalls how “Soweto Rocks would host training camps regularly and training would be every day after school and weekends. They’d cook for us and we’d do our homework when we came back from training. Then head home afterwards. 

“I must say, Soweto Rocks developed me and shaped me to become who I am today and I’ll be forever grateful to them.”

So far I’m happy because I’m a disabled person with hopes and dreams.

Nkosinathi Maphumulo, another young cyclist, explains that his family “did not have enough for transport, so I bought a secondhand bike from a local bike mechanic who today is my coach. I started cycling to and from school every day, +-56km a day, and slowly fell in love with cycling.” 

Now, brags Maphumulo, “with my bike I have been to the most beautiful parts of our land, which is where I connect with the land where we come from”.

“Busi played a huge role in the growth of many cyclists in Soweto, especially Joberg2c, a race across the country with the best finish at the sea and, to add the cherry on top, ride on a plane for the first time!! Soweto Rocks prepared us physically and mentally for all the stage races we have ever done.”

Riding the mine dumps around Soweto. (Photo: Mark Heywood)

Soweto goes to Berg

In 2017, Craig Wapnick (“Wappo”), one of the founders of Joberg2C, reached out to Msimango, having heard of Soweto Rocks. Since then they have become friends and on four occasions Wapnick has waived the registration fee, making it possible for the “Soweto 10” to become a regular part of the race. 

This year, 10 riders will be part of the inaugural go2berg. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: To South Africa with love – new six-day mountain bike race with an unusual mission

Last week I rode with some of them at Thaba Trails, south of Johannesburg, where they told me a bit more about their lives and ambitions.  

Lindokuhle Kubheka, from Zola in Soweto, says: “I started cycling in 2020 because of my uncle who gave me the idea. This year I have an opportunity to race at go2berg! My wish is to finish the race well without giving up because I love this sport. So far I’m happy because I’m a disabled person with hopes and dreams.”  

According to Thando Ngwenya, “for the past five years cycling has been my passion, my escape and my ultimate source of joy. Now, with go2berg I find myself on the brink of an exhilarating opportunity.

“Cycling has become an integral part of who I am, providing me with countless adventures and personal growth. From the very first time I hopped on a bike, I knew there was something special about the freedom and thrill it offered. The wind in my face, the rhythmic cadence of my pedalling and the stunning landscapes have all combined to create an indescribable sense of exhilaration and inspiration.

“Through rigorous training and unwavering determination, I have not only built physical strength, but also developed mentally. I have learnt to embrace the pain and push beyond my perceived limits, knowing that true growth lies just beyond the discomfort.”

As I embark on this race, I embody the true essence of a passionate cyclist who has found his calling on two wheels.

Siyabonga Ntsele agrees. Cycling has given him an opportunity in life. In 2022 he finished joberg2C in the top 50. “I then went off to ride for the best MTB academy there is, Exxaro Mountain Bike Academy. They gave me a place to stay so that I can focus more on training and school. They’ve also given me opportunities to race some big races like Absa Cape Epic, Wines2whales and many more. My goal at go2berg is to be in the top 10 or even a podium finish. 

“Coming from a township, I’d like to inspire young kids to give mountain biking a go and build them to become the best version of themselves.”

Bontle Phepiso (19) is one of a number of young women also drawn to cycling. “The reason I started cycling was to keep myself busy as I enjoy the sport and to stay away from bad things that are happening in the outside world. But now I enjoy it very much and I want to become the best from it. 

They have mapped out several fascinating routes across and beyond Soweto, including on the ubiquitous yellow mine dumps that still ring parts of the township. (Photo: Mark Heywood)

“The biggest goal I wanna achieve is to become one of the best female cyclists, and my biggest motivation is to see myself wearing the South African colours. I also want the other young females to look further beyond their limited capabilities to see that they can do it as well and have a brighter vision of cycling.”

The last words about the potential of cycling to uplift people and their communities are best left to Thando Ngwenya: “My love for cycling runs deep, and it has been a transformative force in my life over the past five years. From the streets of Soweto to the challenging mountain trails, my dedication and perseverance have led me to the exciting doorstep of the go2berg mountain bike race. 

“With a burning passion and an unyielding determination, I embrace this opportunity to showcase my skills, celebrate in the camaraderie of fellow cyclists, and push myself to new heights. As I embark on this race, I embody the true essence of a passionate cyclist who has found his calling on two wheels.” DM

The other riders from the Soweto 10 are: Keabetswe Mosidi, Noko Malikhetla, Kabello Sello, Siyabonga Khubeka, Sanele Mhlungu. Would you like to support Soweto Rocks? To contact Busi Msimango write to: [email protected]

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