A young South African is winning widespread recognition for his unique business in Alexandra, Johannesburg. Jeffrey Mulaudzi takes tourists on bicycle rides through the township that was once home to a young Nelson Mandela, but in recent times has become infamous for violent crime.
The streets of Alexandra are a sprawl of shacks in the middle of Johannesburg.
As a teenager, Mulaudzi dreamed of owning a bicycle; but his single mother, a domestic worker, couldn't afford to buy him one.
"I was arrested for stealing a bike,” Mulaudzi said. “Luckily, I was released [from jail] earlier than most of my friends."
Jeffrey Mulaudzi says his mission is to facilitate interaction between foreign visitors and Alexandra residents, to prove that the area isn't as dangerous as people think. (D. Taylor/VOA)
He decided to dedicate himself to his schooling.
In 2009, one of his teachers asked him for a tour of Alexandra.
"He always wanted to step out of his car,” Mulaudzi said. “So I had two, of course, stolen bikes that I had with me. I offered him one; I took one. We went around the township and we enjoyed [it]; we had fun. The next day he said, ‘Jeffrey, is it possible that we can bring my friends for a tour, and we have beers, and drink and just have fun in Alexandra?' And we did exactly that and they enjoyed [it], a lot!"
That experience sparked Mulaudzi’s idea for a tour business.
In 2010, he began taking tourists on bike rides to landmarks in Alexandra, such as the house Mandela lived in as a law student in the early 1940s.
"That was the best salary ever,” Mulaudzi said of his success. “There was more salary in a day than my mother would earn in a month."
Today, Mulaudzi is 24 and has gone from two stolen bicycles to a fleet of 65 mountain bikes. He employs five guides.
Jeffrey Mulaudzi, a former bicycle thief, is now a successful entrepreneur and founder of Alexandra Bicycle Tours. (D. Taylor/VOA)
"When you are in a township, a very informal place in Johannesburg, with a car, people tend to view you as [if] you are in a zoo,” Mulaudzi said. “So we encouraged people to hop on a bike. Then you can cover a long distance, but you can still communicate with the community, and be part of the community."
Residents welcome Mulaudzi, and thank him for showing visitors the township's positive side.
He says crime does happen in Alexandra, but more often than not, it's a safe place.
"I felt quite unsafe [at first], because you hear so much about Johannesburg and crime and stuff,” said one German tourist, Peter Lehmann. “You get the feeling where it is safe, and where it could be unsafe. But I never experienced an unsafe situation."
Mulaudzi shows clients taverns, food stalls, barber shops. His mission, he says, is to allow visitors to interact with the people of Alexandra.
"The lifestyle is just sitting around with guys and talking, drinking beer and having fun,” he said. “We then drink umqombothi, that's traditional [maize] beer; we then dance [to] traditional songs. So it's basically not planned; it can be different for every tour."
And it’s a recipe that has found success.
The international travel website TripAdvisor recently gave Alexandra Bicycle Tours one of its coveted Excellence Award.
People from all over the world now go on Mulaudzi's bicycle tours, and his success recently resulted in a TripAdvisor Excellence Award. (D. Taylor/VOA)
Dutch tourist Fritzi van den Boom called her bike ride through Alexandra one of her "top 10" experiences.
"It's been very good, and that is mainly because of the people,” van den Boom said. “From the very beginning, I noticed the difference with Dutch people, that South Africans are generally more generous and hospitable. So I felt very welcome."
Mulaudzi says his clients react differently to tasting local fare such as roasted chicken feet and heads, called "walkie talkies" in the township.
"The American will be like, ‘Interesting!'” Mulaudzi said, laughing. “That's usually what the Americans say about the taste. You don't know exactly what they mean. Is it nice, is it bad, it is OK; is it not OK?"
He says he's taken top international business people on tours — from airline pilots to Olympic athletes to models.
Some are now regular clients, like the Spanish male model who once insisted on taking beer from a tour back to his luxury hotel.
"He carried three of those bottles back to his hotel,” Mulaudzi said. “Everyone was just looking at him and he was like, ‘Sharp, sharp!’ ‘Sharp, sharp’ is how we usually greet people in the township."
Bike-thief-turned-entrepreneur, Mulaudzi says he's living his dream, and hopes to one day own a truck transport company. But bicycles, he says, will always be special to him.