Critical Mass is a bicycle event that happens in cities all over the world, usually on the last Friday evening of the month. The original Critical Mass was started in San Francisco in 1992, and was intended as nothing more than a gathering of people to ride their bicycles through the city together. More recently, however, Critical Mass events have been perceived, from the outside, as a form of protest action; a “take back the streets” style protest, although this is never the intention. Jozi recently caught on, with its first inner city ride held in June last year.
I took part at the end of January, along with hundreds of other bicyclists, kitted up in spandex and lumo. I really enjoy using my bike to get from A to B, and I did a lot of that when I lived in Cape Town. I’ve missed being able to do that in Joburg, so I loved the idea of cycling through the city, especially at night. I had a wonderful time, and would recommend the event to anyone. It’s probably about a 20km ride, and takes at least two hours, so it’s slow enough for anyone with a bike in their garage to do, no matter how thick the cobwebs are.
As much as I enjoyed the ride, I do want to say that this event is not – and should not be seen as – just a frivolous bike ride through the city. In the Joburg version, no matter the intention, cyclists experience (I hope) a very real political moment as they cycle through the streets of the inner city. Still very much a segregated society, the disparities in wealth and race are starkly juxtaposed as hundreds of mostly white, well-off individuals cycle through the neighbourhoods of mostly black, poor communities. Perplexed, residents of oversubscribed, structurally compromised high-rise buildings hang out of their windows; confused pedestrians line the streets; and frustrated taxi divers wait impatiently, as a mass of audacious, neon clad bicyclists ride by.
I’m not saying the event should be condemned, or even shunned. I’m merely pointing out that it’s important to be self-aware and humble as we impose our sparkling herd on the unsuspecting streets of the inner city residents. So often, middle class Joburgers think they’re being progressive by going for a drink at a ‘shabeen’ in Vilakazi street, or venturing down to the Maboneng Precinct. And yet, we’ll only do these things if we’ve got strength and security in numbers because we’re not actually integrating ourselves at all. We’re aware that we’re imposing, but we’re too cowardly to admit it. I think it’s just important when we do visit places like these, or when we take part in an event like Critical Mass, that we are respectful of the people that we encounter; that we recognise that we are visitors, and that we openly acknowledge and reflect on the fact that we are outsiders. The most important step in bringing about real integration is acknowledging the realities of the starting point.
See you on the corner of de Beers and Juta streets in Braamfontein on the 22nd of February for the next instalment of Critical Mass!