Inconvenience and anxiety are small prices to pay for a front row seat to the birth of a democracy.
But as an 11-year-old experiencing the death throes of apartheid in South Africa I’m not sure I fully grasped the events unfolding. When history was happening around me I was, mostly, just spoiling for a bike ride.
I grew up in Africa. I have travelled through Asia, visited North America, toured bits of Europe and lived in the Middle East. But there's only one time in my life I felt like a genuine explorer: as an 8-year-old, on my bike, pedaling round my neighborhood in Cape Town.
We weren't a particularly well-off family, so the area wasn't the best. There wasn't much to see in terms of beautiful homes or manicured gardens. In fact, Lansdowne was quite a depressing collection of dusty streets lined with medium-income housing.
But I was too young to know that; too young to make comparisons to wealthier suburbs where the grass didn't conceal patches of devil's thorns and trees other than the grey-leafed, invasive Eucalyptus grew. To me, all that mattered was seeing how far my pedaling legs could carry me.
The bike was a gift from a family in our church. Their daughter wanted a mountain bike, so they were giving away her sturdy little old Peugeot with pedal-back brakes.
The night before they arrived at our front door with the bike, my father suggested I pray for one before bedtime. So when the front door opened the next day, and my father yelled “Cath, come see!” it was that much more magical. God had given me a bike. OK, I asked for a blue bike and He gave me a pink one, but Dad soon fixed that with a can of turquoise spray paint.
The first of the solo biking adventures was out the driveway gate and to the left, past the sports fields of the noisy middle school we lived across from. Then right, past the outer edge of the field, where naughty kids would hang out against the fence at lunchtime.
Across one road, just past the scrapyard of old car parts, was a small dairy in a dilapidated art deco building that faced the train tracks – the outer limits of my kingdom.
The success of the second solo biking adventure depended on two things. First, I needed to safely ferry two cold, sweating bags of milk home from the dairy. Then I needed to convince my mother to let me keep the change from the milk so I could go to the cafe, a corner store three blocks away.
Everyone in the neighbourhood called it the “kaffy”, but my mother would indignantly correct me if I mispronounced it like the others. “It's a 'caf-AY',” she would groan – probably the only person in the area with enough worldly knowledge to know better.
If I pronounced it correctly, and there was enough change left over and enough goodwill garnered by fetching the milk, I would take my clutch of copper coins, get back on my blue bike and turn right outside the gate.
Down the road I'd pedal, swinging right at the Eucalyptus tree on the corner, over the first intersection and left down the street with the house that had two impossibly tall coconut palm trees on its front lawn.
At the end of the road, I'd turn God's bike right and furiously pedal the remaining stretch to the corner shop, where I'd dump my bike on the red, polished “stoep” (“Veranda”, my mother would sigh) before heading into its dark interior.
I never ventured much further than the glass counter near the entrance that I was too short to see over. It didn't matter that I couldn't see over the counter because I was the perfect height to see into it, where the owner had rigged up a see-through shelving system of loose candy.
Two cents for the peach chewy thing that I now suppose was shaped to look like the top of a peach, but just looked like an orangey bum to a kid. Two cent for the little yellow banana-shaped chewys. Five cents for the Wilsons toffee in the black, blue or red wrapper. One cent for the hard black balls that changed colours as you sucked them.
The children in the neighborhood called them something else – a name involving the N-word. I used that name once, got yelled at louder than I'd ever been yelled at and sent to my room to await a spanking. I never used the word again.
Once I had my white paper bag of sweets in hand, the challenge would be to find the longest and most convoluted way home. I might head off past the cafe before turning left and routing as far as possible away from the direction of home before tracking back through unfamiliar streets until I hit the railway tracks that would eventually lead me back to the streets I knew.
The longer I could spend inventing new routes through the back roads, the more time I had to eat as many sweets as possible before I got home and had to share them with my little sister.
By 1994, when a long line of people stretched down the pavement outside the middle school to cast their vote in South Africa's first democratic election, I was 11 and my sister was 8.
It was the year my parents agreed to buy a television so we could watch the unfolding news in the build-up to the election. And with the moving pictures of pre-election violence on the television came a little more fear.
The country was on edge— no one entirely sure how things would turn out. On the far right, old white men who knew no better ranted about their refusal to be ruled by black people. On the far left, young black men who were tired of oppression suggested all the white people be driven out of their homes and chanted phrases like “One settler, one bullet”.
At school, we were made to practice hiding under our desks in the event of a drive-by shooting or how to evacuate in the case of a bomb threat.
Against all odds, when Nelson Mandela was elected president that year he fostered an almost bloodless transition to democracy. He was hailed as a miracle-maker— and rightfully so.
But fear is a funny thing. With a little taste of it comes a lot less freedom. For me, fear meant biking became reserved for weekends when my Dad was free to ride with me.
The genuine days of exploration – riding off fearlessly into the unknown, to get lost alone¬— were over.
works as a senior news editor at an English broadsheet in the United Arab Emirates. Before being bitten by the news bug, she worked in magazines for 11 years. Before she worked in magazines, she was just a kid in Africa who kept losing her shoes.