According to a study conducted by the University of Pretoria, South African primary school learners in grades 4 and 5 ranked last out of 50 countries in literacy levels.
Lindsay van der Byl is the social activist and founder of the Cycle 4 Change project which seeks to redress the findings of the study by raising awareness of the importance of reading to addressing the country’s social ills.
He considers the low literacy levels a national crisis and is thus helping to donate books to poor communities in all of the country’s nine provinces throughout a period of nine years.
He raises awareness of the campaign by cycling 1450 km from the Union Buildings in Pretoria to Parliament in Cape Town, engaging communities along the way on the importance of reading.
The Cycle 4 Change campaign aims to donate a book for every gruelling km traveled.
There are many other ways to encourage children to read but van der Byl chose cycling because it is aligned with his love for physical activity.
He says increasing literacy levels among the youth is the best chance the country has to improvement and believes “reading is only second to oxygen.”
“For any and every problem that you encounter, there’s a solution in a book and I believe once we start becoming a reading nation, we’re just going to be a force to be reckoned with.”
“If we can assist in increasing the literacy levels, half of our problems are solved,” he says.
Van der Byl was an alcoholic in his youth before he decided to live a more positive life. He hasn’t looked back since and has been proudly sober for 20 years.
This hasn’t stopped alcoholic brands from trying (in vein) to partner up with the Cycle 4 Change initiative.
“We believe it’s counter-productive for us to be wanting to inspire the youth and getting them to change their lives yet we’re taking money from the same sources that are actually killing our community.”
The biggest supporters of the initiative thus far have been the National Library of South Africa and St. Johns College.
Sibusiso Buthelezi is as an IT technician at St. Johns College and the only other person permitted to attempt the arduous journey with van der Byl for safety reasons.
“We generally don’t encourage people to do the full distance with us because it’s not as easy as it looks,” he warns.
Van der Byl says one would need “at least a year of cycling to be fit for the Cycle 4 Change journey,” and a whole lot of mental toughness as “physical fitness counts 40% of the journey and the other 60% is mental.”
He recounts occasions when he nearly lost the tips of his fingers due to frostbite in Parys and when he almost got robbed of his bike near the Huguenot Tunnel that separates Paarl from Worcester in the Western Cape.
Luckily, Danie Erasmus, a police officer dissuaded the would-be robbers from taking his bicycle before escorting van der Byl a portion of the journey to ensure he was safe.
Van der Byl remains in contact with the police officer as he does with everyone he meets along his journey.
“That’s the beauty of Cycle 4 Change, it has taken me on bicycle to places where I would have never ever thought I would go and it has given me families,” he says.
Van der Byl’s efforts to encourage young people to read were dully recognised when he was elected as a Lead SA hero in 2017 followed by Media24 who named him as one of the ‘100 Young Mandelas of the Future’ in a commemoration of former president, Nelson Mandela’s centenary in 2018.
“I was elected as one of the Lead SA heroes for July 2017 and from there I went on to do the YALI course where I also became a member of the alumnae representative council,” he says.
These sorts of acknowledgments are fulfilling for van der Byl as he sees them as opportunities to prove to people that anything is possible.
Van der Byl credits DJ Sbu, who he considers his mentor, for encouraging him to get the campaign up and running and to document his experiences in a book.
“I’ve documented an entire trip, from how I was feeling, the weather, the cold, the challenges that I had on the road. It’s like a journal with the origins of where the idea came from.”
“With [Dj Sbu] being my mentor and him being an integral part of what makes Cycle 4 Change tick, I just thought it was appropriate for him to do the forward [of my book],” he says.
Van der Byl ’s favourite book is Kasinomics by GG Alcock which he says is “the real hustlers bible” and believes is essential reading for young people who want to venture into entrepreneurship.
Van der Byl is frustrated by the lockdown restrictions which have restricted his ability to partake in physical activity and carry out the duties of the campaign.
“Covid hasn’t only affected Cycle 4 Change as a movement that’s pushing for literacy change and trying to deal with the scourge of illiteracy, it has also meant that … gyms are closed.”
This year, because of the pandemic, Cycle 4 Change has decided to alter their approach slightly.
“The plan was to do a single ride and to go from Joburg to Cape Town and have it as a special one. So, we’re not starting at the Union Buildings, we’re starting at the Mandela house … and then end at Table Mountain.”
What started out as a social campaign has turned Van der Byl into an inspiration for hundreds of people across South Africa to not only read more in the hopes of bettering themselves and their nation, but to try their hand at cycling too.
Find out more on the Cycle 4 Change campaign and how you can get involved to donate books here.