Slow days for Durban’s rickshaw men

It’s noon on a quiet weekday at the Durban Beachfront and the “Rickshaw men” sit idly along Marine Parade. They are dressed in casual clothes, over which they wear brightly-coloured aprons, topped off with large leopard-print headdresses bedecked with ox horns and hanging sashes. Their rickshaw carts, last renovated in 2011, are painted to match the print of each puller’s costume with patterns symbolic of Zulu culture. The presence of the rickshaws not only complements the African arts and crafts on sale nearby, but brings the heritage to life.

“The business is dead” says one of the pullers, who asked not to be named and was initially reluctance to discuss grievances regarding the Rickshaw service.

He is one of 25 Rickshaw-pullers seen daily on the Golden Mile, an area that has undergone major upgrades since the 2010 Fifa World Cup, including a revamp of the promenade which is  lined with restaurants and other attractions and now stretches for 6 kilometres from uShaka Marine World to Blue Lagoon, enhancing the beach experience.

Rickshaw pullers have been operating in Durban since the late 19th Century, as is visually documented in the Gallery Ezakwantu. Tourism websites, such as Durban Tourism, market Rickshaw rides as unique tourist attractions that have come to form an integral part of the Durban cultural experience.

An article on the Ethekwini Municipality’s website, written months before the World Cup, describes the daily working conditions and costs incurred by the “Rickshaw men” in maintaining the Rickshaw service, and plans for expansion and regulation of the business that the anticipated ‘boom’ in tourism would bring. But that boom doesn’t seem to have materialised.

“There used to be a lot of people coming from America and Europe. Sometimes they take photos and maybe give ten or twenty rand but some just [don’t]…” said the puller.

The Rickshaw-pullers rely on these donations along with the money they charge for rides: R40 per person. On the day we spoke, with few visitors, and inclement weather, he would likely not earn any income.

As the eThekwini Municipality policy on Informal Trade stipulates, the Rickshaw drivers are required to register as small businesses, and are thereby regulated by the Business Support, Tourism and Markets Unit (BSTMU) of the Municipality. While this has improved the efficiency of business in terms of demarcating specific areas for informal trade as well as addressing the concerns of traders, there is a lack of financial support for the Rickshaw service.

At first reluctant to comment on this, the Rickshaw-puller soon expressed his disgruntlement regarding the costs of maintaining his business, which includes paying a yearly fee of R500 to the Municipality for a trading license, and R50 a month to store rickshaws at the beachfront overnight. Miscellaneous costs to repair the rickshaw as well as sourcing materials for his decorative costume are also at the trader’s own expense.

Durban Rickshaws_2

The inevitable deterioration of the rickshaw carts over the years informed “Walking With Dignity: The Durban Rickshaw Renovation Project”, carried out in 2011 by students from the Durban University of Technology (DUT), in collaboration with the BSTMU and the Durban Rickshaw Pullers Association (DRPA) with the aim to “restore an interest in the Rickshaw service amongst the Durban public and within the hospitality, tourism and related industries.”

When asked about the future of this business, the Rickshaw-puller was confident that it would maintain its place in the Durban Beachfront tourism sector, but said he needed more financial support in maintaining the equipment.

Rolan Gulston is an editorial intern at UrbanAfrica.Net. She is based in Durban, South Africa, and is a graduate of the UKZN Centre for Communication, Media & Society (CCMS). She is an aspiring journalist, hoping to make a meaningful contribution in the field of development communication with a particular interest in satire.

Photos: Rolan Gulston.





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