African rickshaw pullers were an indispensable part of Durban’s transport system in the early twentieth century and by the early 1900s, their distinctive and elaborate costumes had already become a tourist attraction.
Rickshaws were invented in Japan circa 1869. They were first imported into Natal in 1892 by Sir Marshall Campbell and were hired out to African pullers. Their popularity as a means of transport is reflected in the dramatic rise in the numbers of new vehicles and pullers on Durban’s streets: in 1899 about 740 rickshaws were in daily use, and by 1902 there were 2170 rickshaws and over 24 000 pullers. They were ‘freelance’ operators who hired their vehicles from rickshaw-owning businesses.
Shortly after rickshaws were introduced, Police Superintendent Alexander proposed that pullers should wear a distinctive uniform to facilitate their identification by police. This uniform was originally an unbleached calico ‘kitchen suit’ trimmed with a single row of red braid; rickshaw men, coming from a rich beading culture, soon modified this by adding other rows and allowing the braids to hang down on each side. They also patterned their legs with whitewash, wore reed bangles, and tied boxes of seeds around their ankles that rattled as they moved. They gradually adopted decorative headdresses, which usually consisted of ox horns, through which it was believed the ox’s strength would be imparted to the puller.
The rise of motorized transport throughout the twentieth century meant that there were only ten operating rickshaws left in Durban by the early 1980s. Six of the rickshaw men interviewed around this time had been pulling for over thirty years. Five were members of the Mandlakazi clan from Nongoma, which by tradition supplied pullers; and four of these men had followed their fathers into the business, including one whose grandfather ‘began that tradition’.
Just 25 remain today.
Their headdresses are magnificent but extremely heavy with beads and other decoration. Riding on a rickshaw along the beachfront is a wonderful way to move along the 6 kilometers of beautiful Durban beachfront. Half the fun is the Rickshaw man leaping into the air as you will think you are going to end up on the ground, but these guys know what they are doing.
There are Rickshaw ranks at uShaka Marine World, Tropicana Hotel, Protea Hotel and Mini Town. Rides cost between approximately R130 (from the Elangeni to uShaka World) to as little as R20 for a local ride at time of writing but may change. Videos and photos of these magnificent guys do cost a small fee. Make sure you have cash.