Todd H. Leedy
Todd H. Leedy is associate director and senior lecturer in the Center for African Studies. He is co-editor of African Migrations: Patterns and Perspectives (Indiana University Press, 2013) and will become the new editor of African Studies Quarterly in August 2017. He has raced bicycles on and off-road since 1982.
This paper seeks to uncover the “hidden history” of bicycle racing in the township locations around Johannesburg over the first half of the 20th century. Press, government, and industry source materials will begin to reveal how individuals and communities created vibrant social spaces around this sport during decades of intensifying segregation and apartheid. The paper likewise illustrates how municipal authorities and mining companies sought to utilize cycling for purposes of worker control and productivity as well as public relations. A history of the game – origins, early stars, development of rules and institutions – is essential to building contemporary enthusiasm and participation in any sport. Such a complete accounting however, becomes considerably more difficult in societies with a history of extraordinary social exclusion and separation. Racing was not “hidden” from the hundreds of participants and the many thousands of spectators who cheered them. Yet due to the divisions in South African society, the early township scene and its heroes remain virtually unknown today – even amongst the most senior South African cycling officials. In those brief accounts where they do feature, both the pool of talented racers and the many urban Africans who enthusiastically followed the sport seem to emerge fully. But in no sport do athletes reach a national or international level of competitiveness overnight. Nor does the sporting public immediately offer demonstrable widespread support. This paper argues that bicycle racing among urban African populations already commanded widespread attention by the early 1930s, and in some areas as early as the immediate post-WWI years. In the case of cycling, the athletes, managers, and organizing bodies possessed a level of resilience and cohesion that did provide such continuity, in spite of – or perhaps even because of – the limiting obstacles which they confronted in twentieth century urban South Africa.