In the first installment of The Flying Dodo Airfield - a collection of articles written by SA cycling history doyen Ron Thompson, we “Detour” into the past to explore the history of South African bicycle charity programme Qhubeka and the origins of bicycle mobility movement in South Africa.

As I sit down to write this piece in July 2018, the 105th Tour de France has just begun.

Most South African cyclists are aware that a team of professional cyclists with African connections rides the 2018 Le Tour. Team Dimension Data for Qhubeka is Africa’s first ever UCI World Tour team! The team not only focuses on helping African talents to the world stage of cycling, but they also raise funds and gather international support for South African bicycle charity organization Qhubeka through the #BicyclesChangeLives campaign.

Qhubeka has been instrumental in bringing bicycle mobility to communities who have limited access to transport and have to walk long distances to reach jobs, education, healthcare and community services. Here the bicycle is used a tool of change, to uplift communities and change lives.

Having an African pro cycling team racing in Europe has done a great deal to spread the Qhubeka message. In the end the result is that both the sport and the transport aspect come more into the spotlight – a win win situation. To see how this relationship between sport and transport came about, we need to look back at the origins of Qhubeka and the bicycle mobility movement in South Africa.


As a collector of old steel bicycles and regarded as knowledgeable re fixing and refurbishing such machines, I was invited to be part of a project to bring discarded bikes from overseas to South Africa to provide transport for “Previously Disadvantaged People”.

This project became Afribike. It soon became apparent that parts for these obsolete machines were near impossible to obtain. In addition, the cost of parts, labour, time and the sourcing of needed bits and pieces was counter-productive. We became a depository for discarded bicycle junk from the rest of the world. Someone described the operation as a Waste Management exercise!

If experience is also a process of learning from mistakes, boy did we become experienced.
After some hard thinking a solution was devised and we formulated an Action Plan to take to Government: by having a single design and size bike, economies of scale should mean that Quantity would ensure Quality at the lowest price possible.

We had no trouble in persuading the government under President Mbeki of the economic, ecological, and energy saving merit of the bicycle as the human powered Mobility Machine for the majority of people in this country. This healthy and cost saving alternative to fossil fuel powered transport would be a saving rather than a cost to the country.

On the basis that appeals to raise funds for children and animals are the most likely to meet with success, we focused on an estimated 12 million children in rural areas who walked long distances to school each day ( with some of them spending up to fours hours a day walking to school and back). The fact that there was very little or no road infrastructure in these areas for motorised school transport anyway, was advantageous as cycling was made safer. In addition, our bicycles were designed to ride across the veld, utilising footpaths.

Bicycles are the most effective and economical method of quickly addressing this problem – saving time and energy, bringing fresher kids to classes thus better able to absorb the lessons necessary to gain a better education. Better Education = Better Jobs. In essence then the bicycle is a means to an end. It is the Path out of Poverty.

Our project was the Shova Kalula* – Million Bike Project. The idea was to distribute 1 million bikes at the rate of 1000 bikes per region to 1000 regions per year over a ten year period. * [pedal easy] Only a government would be able to fund an undertaking of this size. However, after Mr Zuma instigated the exit of Mr Mbeki at Polokwane, the wheels came off this government project, although it will undoubtedly be revived before the next election in terms of propaganda to garner votes!


At this time I went off looking for a private sponsor to get the wheels turning again and found Anthony Fitzhenry, then owner of the computer supply company Axiz, which needed a CSI project to earn needed BEE points and at the same time be of benefit to others. Thus was born the motive power movement out of which came Qhubeka [“to progress”, “to move forward”].

Founded in 2005, Qhubeka uses bicycles to connect families to schools, clinics and jobs. That’s why Qhubeka’s name is an Nguni word that means “to progress”, “to move forward” – because bicycles help people to travel faster and further, be fitter and access more options, including healthcare and educational facilities and job opportunities. People earn bicycles through various programmes, like their Learn-to-earn Programme, where schoolchildren earn Qhubeka Bicycles by committing to improve their school attendance. Qhubeka also supplies bicycles to health workers, to help them visit more patients, and to communities to help them access clinics more easily.

Today Qhubeka has supplied over 80 000 of their robust, steel utility bicycles through these programmes to communities across South Africa.

The cycle-sport link came about when Douglas Ryder approached MTN to sponsor his cycle team and was turned down. He then met Anthony Fitzhenry, and realised that MTN would undoubtedly see an advantage in sponsoring the scheme to help provide bicycles/transportation for rural schoolchildren and thereby helping them get an education. Hence the MTN-Qhubeka cycle team which was founded in 2007. In 2015 this team (now named Team Dimension Data for Qhubeka) made history as the first African registered team to take part in the renowned Tour de France!


This is the situation at present, except for this addendum: For a long time, Qhubeka imported bicycle components from abroad, but this year through the establishment of Real Bicycle Company, the charity-owned bicycle manufacturing entity – Qhubeka all steel bikes are now designed and built locally! Through the Real Bicycle Company, Qhubeka is creating new jobs and boosting skills development, while sparking the revival of South Africa’s bicycle manufacturing industry. An industry that during its heyday in the 1970s and 80’s, once produced around 400 000 bicycles a year.

The wheel turns full circle.


Over the past year, Qhubeka has combined forces with Pedal Power Association (PPA) and the Bicycling Empowerment Network (BEN) to work on joint initiatives in the Western Cape – with a shared goal to promote bicycle use and empower communities. Collaboration between these organisations has been beneficial to all, increasing their impact and reach, and bringing bicycle mobility to more people across South Africa.

Find out how you can support Qhubeka and help them to move people and communities forward.

Photographs © Qhubeka Charity

Ron Thompson is an 80 year old retiree still pushing pedals […unless playing with his 300 machine Bicycle Collection… or unless out peddling/promoting Bicycle Powered Progress]
Ron Thompson is an 80 year old retiree still pushing pedals […unless playing with his 300 machine Bicycle Collection… or unless out peddling/promoting Bicycle Powered Progress]

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