On Saturday 31 August, in partnership with Uber and Cape Town Bicycle Mayor Lebogang Mokwena, we wrapped up women’s month with Mobile Women, which followed on from our 2018 WomenOnBikes event. This gathering of people from various walks of life contributed to building a more inclusive cycling community in Cape Town and raising awareness about the need for public spaces that are safe and welcoming to women. The event, which took place in Gugulethu, had a great turnout and included a dialogue session and social bicycle ride through the surrounding streets. It built on the work done by bicycle advocate organisations in Cape Town, especially with addressing the everyday challenges to women cycling and, relatedly, gender-based violence in Cape Town. We left feeling hopeful and excited about creating more spaces and communities like this around Cape Town.
But then on Monday 2 September, we were all met with the tragic news of Uyinene Mrwetyana’s horrific rape and murder, adding to a too-long list of other South African women recently violated and assaulted by men. On one hand, we feel despondent and disillusioned; what is the point of talking about women on bikes, when the simple act of going to a post office can cost a woman her life in this country? On the other hand, and largely for that very same reason, we realise that working with others to create spaces of safety and solidarity is precisely what is needed to shift the narratives and realities for women in public spaces.
The Mobile Women event sparked excitement amongst some to start riding a bicycle and others to continue their cycling journeys with renewed energy. Simply by gathering together like-minded organisations to share information and resources for urban cycling, this community has grown by at least 50 new bicycle lovers motivated to transform the streets of Cape Town.
During the dialogue, we heard from Zanele Mabaso of Sonke Gender Justice, who shared some of their research about women’s experiences with urban mobility and the many barriers to being able to move around our cities freely and safely. She noted that while many women aspire to cycle for health and other benefits, it is often a skill South African women do not have the opportunity to learn; and even if they do, the road environment is a hostile and risky space to navigate as a vulnerable user.
Lebogang Mokwena - Cape Town Bicycle Mayor - spoke about the need to help others with simple tools so that they can feel more confident. She shared about her Learn2Cycle initiative, which has taught more than 100 women in Cape Town to ride a bicycle. With this new skill, they have the opportunity to imagine and hopefully also pursue an alternative form of mobility. An important and historically ignored aspect of prevailing cycling advocacy strategies has been the lack of opportunities for women to learn how to cycle. Lebogang stressed, “if we do not create the conditions for women to learn how to cycle, we will maintain the current profile of cyclists and, in the process, miss out on the opportunity to engender a diverse, vibrant, and geographically dispersed cycling community in this city”.
Similarly, Likho Sikutshwa, a member of Gugulethu-based NY Qiqa Cycling Academy and avid commuter cyclist, shared her experiences and how she has grown personally through the challenges she has faced. She credited her bicycle for becoming braver and being more willing to accomplish new things, giving her freedom of mobility and expression.
Beverley Schafer, the Deputy Speaker of Western Cape Provincial Parliament, wrapped up the session by reminding us that we are in great need of women in power that can potentially speak directly to issues that plague women in Cape Town and greater South Africa. As an avid cyclist, Beverley has first-hand experience of the challenges on our streets, and she called on participants to take action and hold the government accountable for creating a more enabling environment for women to cycle safely.
After the discussion came to an end, we all got on bicycles and went for a slow ride around Gugulethu, which reminded us of the issues we must contend with if we are to advance this agenda genuinely. Firstly, safety concerns were raised as we were quite a large group of mainly women cycling on busy roads on a Saturday morning. Although we had the support of experienced TSiBA Cycling Club marshals, local police members were sceptical about allowing us to proceed, keeping our safety as their top priority, but eventually providing patrol cars to go in front and behind the group. Their concerns were proven true as we departed from the venue, as an impatient motorist purposefully drove into a participant's bicycle. Fortunately, she was not hurt, but the aggressive intention was clear to us all and reminded us that it is a change in culture that we need.
Aware that the challenges are many and that change will come slowly, we believe this is the time to push forward with a strong agenda to care for each other and our environment. While reducing the horrific statistics of violence and assault in South African is a mammoth task needing all hands on deck, we have a renewed commitment to working with our partners to displace such disrespectful and aggressive behaviour; nurturing a new culture of respect, justice and freedom of mobility in our streets and public spaces instead.
Big thanks to Uber for supporting this initiative, as well as our partners Pedal Power Association, Bicycling Empowerment Network, Bike4All, Sonke Gender Justice, NY Qiqa Cycling Academy, Avalanche Bicycle Company and TSiBA Cycling Club.
Photos & video by Nic Manson