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Durban’s Ricksha boys – Durban’s spectacular rickshaw runners

Few now remain but the Durban rickshaws are still a dramatic city icon


Rickshaw runner, Durban (c) Graeme Williams/Media Club South Africa

Rickshaw runner, Durban

Graeme Williams/Media Club South Africa

These days, the few remaining 'Ricksha boys' on Durban's Marine Parade probably make more from photos of their extravagantly beaded horns costumes than they do from rides along the seafront. It is certainly far easier work posing for the cameras. The weight of beads alone would be formidable, never mind having to drag a rickshaw full of revelers along the road under the burning sun.

The first rickshaws
The tradition began in 1893. Sir Marshall Campbell, one of the great Natal sugar barons and founder of Durban's fabulous Campbell Collections, introduced the first rickshaw from Japan to provide his wife with transport. The word "rickshaw" is derived from the Japanese "jinrikisha" -from jin (person), riki (power) and sha (vehicle) or person-powered vehicle. The earliest rickshaws were Japanese-style one-person vehicles with wooden wheels.
The fashion spread like lightning. Wealthy women had their own and some more 'traditionally-built' women in hilly Berea would have a puller and pusher to get them home (and act as a brake on the down-hill run). There were also public rickshaws, roaming the streets or waiting in stands, like taxis.

Uniform extravaganza
Within a decade, there were 2170 rickshaws in town with some 24,000 registered pullers. It was decided that they should be made to wear a uniform so that the police could recognise them easily. The original design was a plain unbleached calico suit trimmed with one band of red braid. This did not suit the flamboyant Zulus at all. To a man, they added extra braids, plaited reed ankle bangles jangling with seeds, and horns to the hat, to show they were strong as an ox. The Gallery Ezakwantu website has a remarkable set of historic photographs of the evolving rickshaws.

As time progressed, the competition between the ricksha pullers became stronger. They also faced pressure from horse-drawn and then motorized transport. The pullers split into two distinct groups, servicing the seafront and the market. Most of those who worked on the seafront came from the Mandlakazi Clan of the Nongoma area in northern Zululand. They began to decorate themselves more and more flamboyantly, adding paint, beads, feathers to stand out from the crowd and appeal to tourists. From a simple pair of horns, the headdress grew into a tottering giant with four painted horns and vast beaded displays worthy of Rio carnival.
Documentary makers and photographers flooded in to take their photos but it didn't help and by 1980, there were no rickshaws left in the market and only 10 left at the beach.

Since then, there has been a small revival and there are now around 20 registered rickshaws working on Marine Parade, both pullers and rickshas (the 'w' is optional in Durban) decorated within an inch of their lives. They have two huge side wheels with a smaller central wheel to add stability.
The rickshas have also given their name to Durban's open-top sightseeing bus tour, the Ricksha Bus, tel: 031-368-1253.

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