Joburg People – 15 Minutes with Lebo Malepa of Lebo's Soweto Backpackers & Bicycle Tours

more than a year ago
created 01 Sep 2015
Lebo Malepa has lived his lifetime on the same street in Orlando West, Soweto. If that street could, it would count itself lucky. From his great-grandparents home Malepa has grown Lebo’s Soweto Backpackers into a top attraction, also offering bicycle and tuk-tuk tours, a ‘beach’ bar, outdoor restaurant and an annual camp fest which last saw 100 tents pitched in the adjoining park.

The Backpackers grew out of Malepa’s curiosity. ‘I used to watch tourist buses arrive in Soweto, noses pressed to the windows, and wonder what they were looking at. This is not a game reserve.’ That was 16 years ago, says Malepa ‘and I didn’t really know what a tourist was’.

A student activist his motto then – and now – was ‘I wanted nothing to pass me by.’ He started selling local crafts and postcards outside Hector Pieterson Memorial but soon realised that to bring tourists off their buses he must change the local mindset. ‘Until then the only white people we had seen were policeman, soldiers or priests.’

He started regular soccer tournaments to bring locals and travelers together. Naturally it attracted French, Scandinavian and Netherlands embassy staff, nations well known for embracing travelling adventures. Together they cleared the dumpsite opposite the house for a soccer pitch. Soon visitors were asking to stay over. Next thing ‘there were three people in my bed, two on the floor. Everyone happy. If you’d asked me before if I could start a tourism business I would have said impossible without money. But when you have guests the only thing to think about is making sure there’s breakfast when they wake up.'

Tour operators started to show interest. Malepa, then without a car, would take visitors walking, or by train or taxi to see Soweto. Neighbours loaned him bicycles for his first bike tour. In 2006 Lebo’s bike tours officially launched with three bicycles. Now they own 70 and still borrow from neighbours if needed. ‘Today when I see those people – they are all proud to have helped.’

For Malepa Soweto’s greatest attraction is the people who live there. ‘You don’t know Soweto until you’ve seen the mamas selling their fruit and vegetables, people wearing their Sunday best church uniforms and everyone sweeping their yards. This is a place of warmth. There is always something new to see and for us it’s not only what visitors see, it’s what they leave behind in their encounters with people who live here, rich experiences.’
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