The Time Traveler: A lesson on cycling and privilege

17 May 2019
Author   Hugh Ellis
A few weeks ago, a well-known Namibian cyclist was knocked off her bike by a reckless motorist, and was lucky to escape with her life.
She was cycling in-between the yellow line and the left edge of the road when the accident occurred. On a wide, straight, new road with plenty of space for two lanes of traffic in either direction.
She ended up getting off lightly with broken bones, but such accidents are more often than not fatal.
With Namibian drivers being what they are, such ‘accidents’, as any cyclist knows, are all too common.
We literally take our lives in our hands every time we head out onto the road.
Not all drivers are at fault, but a significant enough proportion are to make cars a constant risk to cyclists.
Despite us asking for cycle paths and dedicated lanes and speed humps and the like, our towns and cities are designed for the motorist, not the bike rider or pedestrian.
Rather than acknowledge our reasonable fear, many drivers seek to blame us when we are forced off the road. They use cyclists’ minor misdemeanors or violations of road rules to say we ‘asked for’ accidents.
They employ ‘both sides’ thinking, as if someone behind the wheel of a powerful, one-tonne-plus, 120 kilometer-per-hour-capable vehicle, surrounded by roll bars and crumple zones, is somehow equivalent to a completely exposed cyclist with nothing more than a vest and pair of shorts to protect his or her body.
The government and local authorities frequently promise to improve safety for cyclists, but those of us who’ve been around here a while, know such promises to be mere ‘lip service’: month after month, year after year, nothing changes.
But still, we hope.
The public perception is that most Namibian cyclists are white.
This is not entirely fair. Black champions such as Lotto Petrus and the late Costa Seibeb have been represented at the elite level of the sport for some years. Most kids riding bikes to school and workers cycling to work are black Namibians.
But, despite the efforts of the Namibian Cycling Federation to diversify the sport, the majority of recreational cyclists – the lycra-clad weekend warriors - probably are white. With any sport that requires equipment, just like tennis or golf, your level of economic privilege determines if you can afford to take it up.
Now, should white recreational cyclists get out of riding bikes and take up a more integrated sport like soccer? A thousand times no. And while you’re at it, ride on the public road, no cross-country stuff.
Why? Because by doing so, you might get a small, teeny-tiny idea of what it means to be black in this country.
We often treat being poor as an accident of fate, but with Namibian history being what it is, as any black person knows, such ‘accidents’ are all too common.
With racist homeowners and overzealous neighborhood watch members a sad reality in our suburbs, black Namibians literally take their lives in their hands every time they head out onto the road.
Not all whites are at fault, of course, but a significant enough proportion are to lead many black Namibians to regard us all as a risk.
Despite black people asking for affirmative action, land reform, economic empowerment and the like, in order to make their lives safer and more prosperous - our towns, cities, business and labour regulation structures, cultural norms and other things are still mostly designed for the benefit of  white Namibians.
Rather than acknowledge their reasonable concerns, many white people seek to blame black Namibians for their own suffering. They use examples of the misdemeanours of a few black people (young men in gangs for example), to imply the entire race ‘asked for’ the generalised suffering they endure.
We far too readily employ ‘both sides’ thinking, as if someone with 100 years of economic power behind him, land ownership somewhere in the family and a good education, is somehow equivalent in the marketplace to a person who has nothing to fall back on in hard times beyond the shirt on his or her back.
The government and local authorities frequently promise to improve the lives of black Namibians, but those of us who’ve been around here a while know such promises to be mere ‘lip service’: month after month, year after year, nothing changes.
But still, we hope.
Hugh Ellis is a lecturer in the Department of Communication of the Namibia University of Science and Technology. The views expressed here are personal views. Contact him on Twitter: @ellis_hugh


The Windhoek Observer is an English-language weekly newspaper, published in Namibia by Paragon Investment Holding. It is the country's oldest and largest circulating weekly.

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