The Humble Ricksha

In South Africa October is ‘Transport Month‘, which may seem a bit arbitrary, but given the economic impact that access to reliable transport, or a lack thereof, has on people, it’s quite a serious issue. But it got me thinking about different modes of transport, and in particular the tourist-driven ricksha business that still operates along Durban’s ‘Golden Mile’. It’s bizarre to think that at one point it was considered a viable way of getting from A to B, and in fact was Durban’s main mode of transport in the early 20th-century with over 2000 rickshas crowding the streets!

The first rickshas were brought to KwaZulu-Natal (then Natal) in 1892 by sugar magnate Marshall Campbell, who imported them from Japan. Interestingly pulling a rickshaw was a highly sought after occupation – a puller could earn as much as a shilling in two days, equivalent to what a ‘head boy’ working in a home might earn in a month. After a while it was decided to regulate the outfits worn by the ricksha drivers and a uniform of unbleached calico trimmed with a single band of red braid was introduced, but the pullers quickly customised their new attire by adding extra braids and wearing bangles around their legs of plaited reeds with seeds which rattled when they walked. Fierce competition developed among the pullers to design the most original and elaborate costume, and the ricksha business developed another arm as a tourist attraction with visiting soldiers and holiday makers having their photos taken with the elaborately dressed pullers.

Sadly with the arrival of the motor car and the popularity of horse-drawn vehicles (including horse-drawn rickshas), the traditional ricksha as a means of transportation slowly became a thing of the past. By 1940 the number of rickshas on the roads had more than halved and by the 1960s rickshas were limited to tourist business only, their numbers a fraction of what they once were.

Today only a handful of rickshas remain, plying their trade up and down the Durban beachfront, colourful reminders of what once was.

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