By Gavin Foster

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Durban has always been famous for its laid-back atmosphere, its clean beaches and its hospitable citizens. For 123 years the city has served all three in rickshaws – or rickshas – and the men who’ve pulled them throughout the 20th century. There’s some disagreement about the origins of the rickshaw but the best evidence indicates that they first appeared in Japan in 1869 and were a direct result of the invention of the radial ball bearing by a French bicycle mechanic that same year.

The low-friction new bearings allowed a two-wheeled cart, which previously needed to be hauled by a horse or mule, to be easily pulled by a single strong man. City streets back then were notoriously fouled with the droppings of the oxen, donkeys and horses that commonly pulled carts and wagons, and a human being was no doubt easier to teach restraint in these matters! Rickshaws improved even further 20 years later, with the arrival of the rubber tyre bringing added comfort for passengers.

The little two-seater carts drawn by a single man became the standard means of personal transport throughout Asia, and in the 1920s some 60 000 rickshaw pullers in Beijing alone transported half a million people a day – a quarter of the city’s population. The little carts became a memorable part of the Chinese landscape and from then on featured prominently in every book, photograph and, eventually, movie about China.

Durban’s rickshaws were first brought in from Japan by sugar baron Marshall Campbell in 1892. Within a decade, the city’s streets were crowded with 2 170 of the clattering devices, drawn by an army of willing pullers. Unlike in the Orient, pulling a rickshaw was considered an honourable profession because the pullers could earn in a day what a head servant in a posh home could take home in a month. Wealthy Durbanites owned personal rickshaws for some years until the increasing presence of the motor car made the contraption a dead loss in terms of status.

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Because of their convenience, though, they survived as affordable transport for the masses, and as late as 1940 there were still around 900 operating in the city. Durban’s rickshaw pullers developed their own style over the years, wearing first uniforms and then, when they realised that evidence of their warlike Zulu ancestry increased the allure for tourists, adding animal skins, beads and flamboyant headdresses. By the 1950s their trade was mainly in tourism, centred on the beachfront, but the number of licensed operators dropped steadily to 260 in 1968, 91 in 1971, and a dismal ten tatty old examples in 1980. In 2015 there were just 26 registered rickshaw operators, with a single rickshaw each left in Durban, catering exclusively for the tourist market on the beachfront.

Moses Dlamini (52) was one of them, having left his job in the security industry eight years before to buy a rickshaw and work for himself. “It’s hard work, taking two people at a time,” he told me then. “We charge R80 for two people for a short round trip, and business has dropped off a lot since I started. There are far too many businesses hiring out bicycles on the beachfront and that has affected us badly. People complain that we’re too expensive. We pay the municipality R800 a year for a permit to operate, and a further R50 per month to store our rickshaws in secure premises each night. At the end of the day, I count my takings and if I lose, I lose.”

Normal working hours are from 08h00 to 17h00, but if the weather is bad or business very slow on weekdays, the guys pack up and go home early. Interestingly, Moses said that foreign tourists were the worst when it came to money. “People from Argentina, Mozambique, America, England, Zimbabwe – they complain about the price and offer us R8, or even 20 cents. People from Durban don’t support us either – the best payers are the ones from Johannesburg and Lesotho. They keep us going.” Rickshaws, which cost about R20 000 to buy, are also expensive and time-consuming to maintain. “We need to paint them often, and the paint costs R180 a litre for each colour. Then the frames sometimes break and have to be repaired. The municipality has been helpful though. They supported us with restoration work for the soccer World Cup and gave us new wheels.”

I told Moses about the bicycle rickshaw operator in London who had been recently caught on camera taking R4 500 from four Asian tourists after conveying them less than two kilometres. Juris Dzjabovic, a Russian who claimed to be a budding opera star, defended himself by saying that the three-minute trip had been ‘uphill’. “I don’t come cheap. I work my legs hard, I look good and I play good music – you have to pay a lot if you want that kind of luxury,” he explained.

I don’t think Moses believed me.

Sadly, the Durban rickshaw business has lost much of its glamour, and the tribal finery is not what it used to be. “We have our skins and headgear but don’t wear them all the time – we put them on if the customers ask for them,” explained Moses. The rickshaw pullers supplement their income slightly by charging R10 to pose with customers for photographs, and R20 to do their famous flying leaps for video. Come on, Durbanites. Even if you don’t want to go for a ride, spend the price of a cold drink, get your photograph taken and help keep an important part of Durban’s history alive.

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