You know when the mayor turns up in cycling gear that something big is going to happen. And it did on Sunday, 9 February. Some 5 000 cyclists turned up for the Freedom Ride, to cycle to pay their respects to our great Madiba.
The ride took cyclists from the Nelson Mandela Bridge to Madiba’s home in Vilakazi Street in Orlando West and back again.
I turned up at 7.45am, and the bridge was buckling under the weight of bristling bikes and their impatient owners. Under a moody sky mayor Parks Tau was being interviewed, talking about how riding bikes is saving carbon emissions and promoting a healthy lifestyle. He was particularly pleased about the multiracial nature of the riders. “The race celebrates the ownership of freedom, as the city and the country.”
There has been talk of the city creating bike lanes for at least the past four years, but I don’t see the evidence of them. And others have noticed too. There were rebel posters along the route with lines like: “The CoJ doesn’t care about cyclists.” “Bike lanes 0.01% implemented”, or “Mayor on PR spin”.
Like many, I would ride to work if there were safe bike lanes. Well, it seems they are finally happening. Lisa Seftel of the transport department says a 15km route is under construction taking in Melville, the sidewalks around UJ, and ending at Park Station, to be in operation by June. The second phase extends to Ellis Park. A 5km route in Orlando West is being created, and a cycling and walking path is planned between Sandton and Alex.
The Madiba ride idea came from Crispian Olver and a group of friends. They were talking about “taking cycling forward in the city”, on the night Madiba died. “We decided that night that we would start with the idea and not wait for the city.” But his death changed things. “We wanted to connect communities, from town to township, the rich and the poor, black and white, and make the route accessible to most people.”
It had rained hard on Friday and Saturday nights, so parts of the planned route were flooded. We had to take a different route, and a fair percentage of cyclists had a shock – an advertised 35km route grew to 55km, with some reasonably long hills thrown in.
There was quiet concentration going out of Braamfontein, and most of the ride remained that way. Main Reef Road was a long uphill slog before the turn into Dobsonville. The ride through Soweto’s suburbs was punctuated with cheers and waves, and shouts of “hallo”. Then we were outside Madiba’s house in Vilakazi Street. There were photos being taken, looking in at the house and garden. I overheard some riders saying that this was the first time they’d been in Soweto.
Then it was back past the Hector Pieterson Museum, where riders were tying ribbons, to say we acknowledge you, Madiba. And past the Orlando Stadium, and on to the Rea Vaya bus lane, past Soccer City, into Fordsburg, and up the small rise on to the bridge. Some riders were weary by then, but the general consensus was that it was a fantastic idea, and they’d be back next year.
It made me think of my very brief encounter with Madiba. It must have been back in 2005 or so. I was coming out of the Milpark Hospital as he was going in. There was a commotion at the door as I got there - people were hurrying to the entrance. Madiba was entering, on the arm of someone. He looked up at the crowd. I was off to his left, and as he looked around we made eye contact. I was tempted to step forward and shake his hand, but his warm, affectionate smile stopped me – it was enough.
The Sunday after he died I responded to a twitter call for a Madiba ride from Braamfontein to his home in Houghton. There were about 100 of us, and it was a sober ride. We rode through Hillbrow, Berea and Yeoville, then dropped down into Houghton. We reached his home mid-morning, where there was a respectful atmosphere. I had been there barely 24 hours after he died, and there was singing and dancing outside his home. Now the flowers and candles spilled into the intersection, and people were quietly posing for photographs amid the hundreds of bouquets. I felt empty, again.
In June 2008 I interviewed Marge Ranchod, the wife of Mr Kapitan, Madanjit Ranchod. Kapitan’s was Madiba’s favourite restaurant in town, being just around the corner from his office in Chancellor House. After asking a few questions in the street where Kapitan’s used to be – it had closed in 2007 when Madanjit died – I found out she was living in a block of flats nearby. I went to visit her. She wasn’t well – she was in bed, and in fact died within the year. She was said to be the cook supreme behind the restaurant, which was 93 years old when it closed.
Marge had said to me back in 2002 when I visited the restaurant: “I cook with love, even better than him – more tasty.”
Madiba took Winnie there when he was dating her, and sat opposite her, charmed as she gulped down glasses of water as she struggled her way through her first curry.
“Mandela was a wonderful man. He used to come a lot before he was arrested. He was very handsome – he used to make a path in his hair and comb his hair flat,” said Marge.
Her husband had said to her that she shouldn’t talk to him – “You’ll get arrested”. She told me: “I was scared.” There were a lot of scared people in those dark days but I can imagine Madiba striding up that flight of stairs to the restaurant. It was probably one place that he could relax entirely, and not be scared of being harassed by the security police.
A week ago I was in KwaZulu-Natal. We took a drive to the Capture Site, just outside Howick. This is where Madiba, in disguise, driving back to Joburg after consulting with Chief Luthuli in Durban, was stopped by the Security Branch. He had been on the run as the Black Pimpernel for 17 months, and the police had finally bagged him. He was taken back to Pretoria, tried and imprisoned for five years on charges of inciting people to go on an anti-government strike, and leaving the country without a passport. After serving nine months of this sentence, he was again in court, on sedition charges, in the Rivonia Trial, when he was sent to Robben Island.
It’s a sensitively developed site. A small museum is filled with enlarged images of him. Then you take a long walk of 400m down to the striking sculpture by Marco Cianfanelli, next to the road. It’s made up of 50 thin serrated steel columns, 9m tall, pointing skywards.
As you get closer the image of his face comes into focus and stops you. Here is our beloved Madiba, a gentle smile hovering around his lips, looking westwards, forever.
I will ride for you again next year, Madiba.
Lucille Davie – Jozi Rewired