The Durban Rickshaws

Durban’s rickshaw men are a familiar sight on the Golden Mile, colourfully clad in their beaded or hand sewn costumes and impressively horned headgear. They’re also among the strongest and toughest people you’ll meet. They rise at 5am seven days a week and ply their back-breaking trade until 5pm, transporting tourists, kids and the occasional local in their imaginatively decorated, human powered carriages.

It’s clear they take great pride in their work. And although they are not the complaining type, it’s also clear that they face many hardships. They do not have proper storage for their rickshaws and require a rickshaw permit, their license to trade, for which they pay. Often, there are quiet days, where they get little to no customers. Rainy days are the worst. No one wants to ride in the rain and the rickshaws stay parked in their garage. Some customers refuse to pay for their ride, prompting altercations and police involvement. Most claim their job does not take a toll on their bodies, as they are used to it. But, pulling a heavy rickshaw, with two people inside, is obviously no walk in the park. The closest they come to complaining is to say that they do get tired sometimes.

Weekends are the busiest time. There is also a boom in their business when holiday seasons like Christmas, New Year and Easter arrive, bringing holidaymakers from all corners of South Africa. There are different rickshaw ranks at uShaka Marine World, Tropicana Hotel, Protea Hotel and Mini Town.

There is never any fighting at a rank, because the rickshaws are parked according to turns. Customers don’t get to choose a rickshaw. Whichever is next inline will carry out a trip. They do have the occasional conflict, but quickly sort it out among themselves. The word rickshaw originated from the ‘human-powered vehicle’.

History of the rickshaw

Jonathan Scobie, a missionary in Japan, is widely credited with inventing the rickshaw in 1869 as a way to transport his wife through the streets of Yokohama. Rickshaws appeared in India some twenty years later. The Chinese traders for transportation of goods used them. It was a peasant job for migrants in these places and quickly became a fixture in many Asian countries.

Sir Marshall Campbell introduced the rickshaw to Durban more than 90 years ago. With the growth of the internal combustion engine, rickshaws as a mode of daily transport all but died out. The 25 that operate today are all that remain of this rich history. Each rickshaw puller owns his vehicle and no one is permitted to have more than one.

Like any vehicles, rickshaws are subject to wear and tear and need to be replaced. A brand new rickshaw can cost a whopping R10 000. We spoke to an operator busy with decorations for his new rickshaw. He explained that the wheels alone can cost R4 000 as they are huge and need to be of a high quality. “It takes time. I can sell a cow or a goat in order to save.” But he views it as money well spent because a new rickshaw will last many years. Rickshaw operators are currently in the process of setting up an umbrella organisation so that they can approach businesses to support them, and in doing so, help to expand their trade.

Written by Romita Hanuman

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