World War II and some contemporary attitudes towards bicycles in South Africa

How does South Africa’ s past shape current bicycle use?

One popular reply to this question is the influence of apartheid spatial planning. In their intent to spatially segregate groups according to racial constructs, apartheid planners left South Africa with sprawled urban forms where travel distances for instance between home and work are vast.

One example in Johannesburg, is the residential area created for the Indian population called Lenasia(Beavon 2004). Lenasia is located about 30 kilometres from the traditional city center and some 45 kilometres from Johannesburg’s financial district, Sandton. In this context as common sense and the cycling literature shows (Heinen, van Wee, and Maat 2010), it is difficult for the bicycle to become an easy obvious everyday tool for transportation. Only if perhaps as combined at the beginning and end of each trip in concert with public transportation (Pucher and Buehler 2012).

Yet there are other ways in which the past haunts the present. One less frequently considered but important deterrent is the social status of the bicycle as a mode of transport. While bicycles had in their early history connoted modernity and offered social status to users, eventually bicycles came to be seen as machines suggesting something less than about users or otherwise eliciting less pleasant notions. In particular for the black population, given the racialised political-economy of colonialism and apartheid, bicycles would evoke deprivation, injustice and accusations of inferiority. In other words, the two wheel machines would be seen not as tools that ‘dignified’ adults might use.

These and other ideas about bicycles emerged due to the structure of society and associated everyday decisions. One such particularity poignant act was in the aftermath of World War II, to provide starkly disproportionate compensations to returning soldiers according to gender and skin colour. To show the differences in financial assistance in these terms, Mohlamme (1995) writes that the state allocated “10 019 844 Pounds for male whites, 135 566 Pounds for female whites, 70 964 Pounds for members of the Cape Corps and a mere 5 795 Pounds for members of the Native Military Corps.” In these calculations, the bicycle figured, but as part of an ensemble of insufficient rewards to black soldiers. Callinicos (1987, 117) writes that, “black soldiers were rewarded with a bicycle and a letter of thanks, [while] white ex-servicemen were promised jobs and free further education”. Here, even though both white and black soldiers had equally put their lives on the line for the nation, their contributions were unequally recognized.

While the black soldiers may have found the bicycles useful in the context of a poorer public transport, as the pedalled to work, they would have also felt aggrieved. As a result, if circumstances favoured them, they might have then chosen not to summon feelings of injustice by opting for other ways to get work. Critically, this story, and attitudes towards bicycles would pass down in generations: for example, a documentary, aptly called A Pair of Boots and a Bicycle was released in 2007.

That bicycles may be shunned because of their association with trauma has been also demonstrated by cycling historians in other contexts. Cox (2015, 24) argues that in Italy after World War II, there was “rejection of cycling … since the bicycle was so firmly grounded as a wartime symbol that the population wanted to leave behind.” Similarly, but more broadly across Europe, Oldenziel and De la Bruhèze (2011, 39) argue that “the associations [of poverty and hardship] turned the bicycle into the antithesis of motorized transport.”

Yet if the current renaissance of cycling across many European cities is anything to go by (Oldenziel et al. 2016), the negative associations of bicycles that emerge in the context of trauma do not need to forever hold South Africa hostage.

This story and others about bicycles and transport, in the history of Johannesburg are told in a forthcoming book by me called: Cycling Cities: The Johannesburg Experience.

References

Beavon, Keith. 2004. Johannesburg: The Making and Shaping of the City. 1st ed edition. Unisa Press.

Callinicos, Luli. 1987. Working Life, 1886-1940: Factories, Townships, and Popular Culture on the Rand. Ravan Press.

Cox, Peter. 2015. “Bicycles as Transport.” In The Organization of Transport: A History of Users, Industry, and Public Policy. London, UK: Routledge.

Heinen, Eva, Bert van Wee, and Kees Maat. 2010. “Commuting by Bicycle: An Overview of the Literature.” Transport Reviews 30 (1): 59–96. https://doi.org/10.1080/01441640903187001.

Mohlamme, J.S. 1995. “Soldiers Without Reward.” Military History Journal 10 (1). http://samilitaryhistory.org/vol101jm.html.

Oldenziel, Ruth, and Adri A. Albert De la Bruhèze. 2011. “Contested Spaces: Bicycle Lanes in Urban Europe, 1900–1995.” Transfers 1 (2): 29–49. https://doi.org/10.3167/trans.2011.010203.

Oldenziel, Ruth, Frank Veraart, Adri Albert de la Bruhèze, and Martin Emanuel, eds. 2016. Cycling Cities: The European Experience. Eindhoven, The Netherlands: Foundation for the History of Technology.

Pucher, John, and Ralph Buehler. 2012. “Integration of Cycling with Public Transportation.” In City Cycling, edited by John Pucher and Ralph Buehler, 157–81. MIT Press.

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