African rickshaw pullers, or amahashi (horses), were an indispensible part of Durban’s transport system in the early twentieth century; and by the time this postcard was produced by Sallo Epstein & Co in about 1907 their distinctive and elaborate costumes had already become a tourist attraction.
Rickshaws were first imported into Natal in 1892 and from the outset 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 11 445 pullers were registered; by 1902 there were 2170 rickshaws and over 24 000 pullers. At the turn of the twentieth century it was estimated that some 3400 people spent an average of 9d daily on rickshaw travel in Durban alone.
As Ros Posel points out, African rickshawmen occupied an anomalous position within Durban’s African labour market for they were ‘freelance’ operators who hired their vehicles from rickshaw-owning businesses. While it was a flexible occupation and could be remunerative, it was also hazardous; in 1904 Durban’s superintendent of police Richard Alexander testified to the South African Native Affairs Commission that most rickshawmen only worked for between two and three months either because of ill health (especially pneumonia) brought on by the gruelling nature of the job, or because they quickly tired of pulling.
Although vulnerable to exploitation, the dependence of Durban’s transport system on rickshaws meant that collective action by pullers could help to protect employment conditions. When in 1918 the city’s largest rickshaw company, Durban Rickshas Ltd, raised its hiring fees from 10s to 12s per week, pullers successfully went on strike. However, subsequent industrial action and protests, such as those in 1930, were less effective.
Shortly after rickshaws were introduced, 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; rickshawmen, however, soon modified it 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 also 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 rickshawmen interviewed by Ros Posel 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 Shampiyise Nxumalo, whose grandfather ‘began that tradition’.
Sallo Epstein & Co. ‘A Riksha boy’, circa 1907. Postcard in JM’s possession.
Ros Posel, ‘The Durban Ricksha Pullers’ “Strikes” of 1918 and 1930’ in Journal of Natal and Zulu History VIII, 1985, pp. 85-106; ‘Amahashi: Durban’s Ricksha Pullers’ in Journal of Natal and Zulu History XIII, 1990-91, pp. 51-70.