I park the car on that little slip road that cuts to left of the base of Nelson Mandela bridge. The night is chilled by Cape Town winds. I put the wheel on my mongoose dual suspension all terrain mountain bike and head towards the start line for my first proper critical mass gathering.
The group is outside Kitcheners, JHB's second oldest pub, a popular joint within the newly renovated and hip section of Braamies. Mountain bikes, double bikes, racers, BMXs and roadsters are being handled by jocks, couples, children and hipsters, all equipped with lights and cameras, and some with the latest lycra fashion. Aside from being bound by bikes, the group is also bound by race - there are hardly any black people. Sometimes this is irrelevant in South Africa, but not tonight. We're riding through the city, which - on any average day or night - is renowned for, well, not having a lot of honkeys in it. It's therefore a glaringly interesting fact that 1 200 or so non-blacks are about to ride through Jozi city on a Friday night.
We head down Jorrison, past Wits. The pendulum that is our posse is headed by a large biker dude (on a motor bike) with a marshal jacket who stops oncoming traffic to allow the swarm to violate the traffic laws. To my left and right BMXs are pulling off 180° jumps, next to them are a few seven-year-old kids with ma's and pa's, and next is a group of all-seriousness-mountain-bikers, and then many more fine folks riding the type of bikes one imagines they have in Amsterdam and England. At the back is a string of service type vehicles shining competitive lights on their bike-shop logos. They're stocking products (which range in price from R6k for nothing through to R30k or more for a frame) including brakes and clutches and tyres, all of which play an integral role in making sure no one gets stranded by a puncture.
The mass that is critical for the ride is unstoppable as we make our way along the side of town. The biker marshal is a threatening site to any motorist - he ensures the more aggressive drivers are kept at bay as the mass makes its way. The music beating out from a few different riders' custom sound devices brings a sense of purpose and rhythm, it creates the vibe of a united gang bravely taking on what the majority of the riders only know as a skyline.
The streets light up as we enter Fordsburg. We're hit by the smell of good oriental food and the sights of families and everyday people hanging around a thriving community. As we take some tight corners we absorb the amused awe in the eyes of those catching sight of us. A car loses patience and cuts through a quick gap - a loud bark-type swear erupts from a few of the bikers. The driver - window open - retaliates with a FUCK after greedily requesting not be sworn at. The episode amuses everyone and lifts spirits. We realise that if you fuck with one of us then you're fucking with all, that we have the numbers, for now, fragile though they may be.
Next: through Mary Fitzgerald square. The tribe stops for a regroup, a quick smoke and some sneaky beers from a nearby shebeen. One left and a right and into Ghandi Square; 10 minutes later we're at Arts on Main. The boys down quick beers, others snack and the pendulum swings back again, this time we go to Ellis Park. The ferocious Hillbrow looks over us.
We enter the brow from Joubert Park and the streets get narrower as apartment blocks get higher. The figures lining balconies to witness this migration of the great whites (and a few browns, hipsters and others) are half there, half hidden. As we pass a shebeen, drunk Friday night partygoers mockingly shout requests 'for something' as a few million bucks worth of cycling equipment flashes past. Others freak out. They are stunned by the sight. Others are in love. They greet us with love and fascination. Me? At every corner I am conscious that I am white. Not an African, nor a Semite but a white - as in, from Europe.
Politically, conceptually, historically, in Africa the critical mass that has always mattered has been white. No matter what African country you come from, your parents or grandparents would have somehow been impacted by the white people. The whole continent is still recovering from mass kidnapping, forced labour and the collective degradation of human dignity. While the other side of the world killed and gassed one another, Africans were taken off land and forced into labour.
Yes, we all want to move on with things and forget the past. But in a cycling pack of whiteys in the brow, the past won't let me off that easy. It will not let go. It asks me why I am parading through the hood like some kind of Roman prince, impaled on my chariot, cruising a foreign land.
We leave Hillbrow, cross over to the other side of town. Pride settles over the pack as we drive past sleeping office spaces and quiet streets. We have claimed something back, have we not? We have found what was once lost, yes? We cross the railway line over Mandela Bridge and into the polished streets of Braamies. We head to Great Dane for an after-beer. It's a nice little bar that serves mainly northern suburbs youngsters. The music is '80s, the vibe is cool, the girls are hot. It's for everyone, but it's a white man's bar. That's how it is, this night in Jozi, South Africa. You challenge and you mix and you hope that one day a bunch of free spirited riders will hit the streets like happy Swedes surely must do - untainted by doubt, by history, by colour, by insanely shiny, functional bikes. But you know that that time isn't yet, and that it won't be tomorrow either. You drink another beer and think fuck, this is some goddam city.