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Bicycling while black in Johannesburg (1904-1906)

One of my current research projects goes back more than 100 years ago. Below is the abstract of the project.

It is well recognized in the literature that a central imperative of colonial and apartheid regimes in urban South Africa was control of the black population. Such control extended into all spheres of life, not least upon spatial mobility. While there are numerous studies that investigate the control agenda in the use of public transport services, there has been limited attention to independently mobile practices such as driving, walking and cycling. This is surprising because as a growing scholarship suggests, since independent mobility signifies freedom, examining such practices in contexts of white supremacy can also reveal the dynamics of power. This research attends to this gap in the literature through a controversy affecting ‘bicycling while black’ at the turn of the 20th century in Johannesburg. In early 1905 the Johannesburg town council agreed on a set of bye-laws to severely restrict black bicycling practices. After opposition from a coalition of early black political organisations on the Transvaal and their allies, the bye-laws were eventually retracted. This paper explores the meaning of the triumph over the repressive bye-laws within the context of a broader struggle for black emancipation in the aftermath of the Treaty of Vereeniging.

By Njogu Morgan

I am currently a post-doctoral researcher based at the History Workshop in the University of the Witwatersrand.

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