The end for Durban’s iconic rickshaw pullers?

Beachside sellers and rickshaw pullers say it will take years to recover from the devastation of the Covid-19 restrictions, with many fearing their businesses will have to close.

Throughout the Covid-19 hard lockdown, and on and off since restrictions were eased, beachside traders, including curio and memento sellers, mobile refreshment merchants and Durban’s rickshaw pullers were prevented from making a living on the promenade.

In April 2020, Minister of the Department of Tourism Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane announced that the government had set aside R200 million as part of the Temporary Employer/Employee Relief Scheme to help people in tourism. In May, she said another R30 million would go towards tour guides. 

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But Durban’s beachfront traders were some of the thousands of deserving applicants who had not received any money when the funds ran out in August 2020.

President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the relaxation of a raft of restrictions, including opening beaches and alcohol trading facilities, on 31 January 2021. But despite this, many traders say it will take years to recover from the losses they have suffered since the pandemic began. 

Not a cent

Zithulele Chiliza, 56, sells cold drinks, chips and candy floss along the 8km-long promenade, which stretches from Durban harbour to the Blue Lagoon. 

“Since the lockdown began last year authorities have been promising us that we will be compensated for loss of business. We have been asked to provide banks statements and apply for relief funds four times but we have not yet received a cent,” he says.

27 January 2021: Zithulele Chiliza sells sweets and cool drinks on the promenade. He says business has been really slow since Covid-19 restrictions were put in place.

Rickshaw pullers are a key attraction in Durban, often featured in the city’s marketing materials. Most traders on the promenade have permits obtained from city officials, for which they pay a yearly fee of R1 000, plus R500 for a space to store their goods and equipment. 

Mbuso Gazu, 39, has worked as a rickshaw puller for 13 years. He inherited the job and wagon from his father, who taught him the style and antics of the famed rickshaw pullers. From the 1950s, Gazu’s father made a living enthralling tourists with his moves.

Gazu charges R50 a ride, which he uses to support his wife and three children, the youngest of whom is four months old.

“The year 2020 was one of the most difficult years for us. I have a young member of my family … but I cannot send any money to my wife in KwaNongoma … to buy food and cater for my children. We are living off handouts from relatives and neighbours,” he says.

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Like Gazu, fellow rickshaw puller Mfanafuthi Sotobe, 34, also from KwaNongoma, took over from his father, who served as a rickshaw puller for 32 years. Sotobe says before the pandemic he used to have clients from overseas and Johannesburg and made good money.

“Now during this lockdown, we go home for days without a cent,” he says.

He adds that the extended off-season means they cannot repair and maintain their wagons by replacing bolts, nuts and other metal parts that tarnish easily so close to the ocean.

“If we don’t [maintain the wagons] we [will] be putting the safety of our clients at risk,” he says. “Other … rickshaw pullers said if things don’t improve, they don’t see the need to continue coming here at the beach. We urge the government to stop hesitating and give us the relief funds. Otherwise we will not survive and a tradition of rickshaw pullers will also die.”

27 January 2021: Mbuso Gazu, who pulls the rickshaw he took over from his father 13 years ago, looks for customers along the beachfront in Durban.

Other traders believe the relief funds meant for them had been “eaten” or stolen by officials at provincial and municipal levels.

Bonakele Ndlovu, 58, says she began trading at the beachfront during “apartheid times” in 1986. After several arrests, she was finally issued with a permit to trade along the promenade. The widow supports seven children and nine grandchildren with the money she makes selling traditional cowhide Zulu garb, beaded skirts, necklaces, bangles, sandals, head dresses, knobkerries, sjamboks, marimba drums and clothes with “I love Durban” printed on them.

“Tourists love these items, and they buy in numbers. I have been able to build my home and support my children and grandchildren with the money I have made here. But now that they are not here, our families are going hungry. I decide to come here instead of listening to children’s … cries for food,” she says.

“We have supported this government, even voted for it, but when we are in trouble, they don’t give us anything, not even … food parcels,” she says. “The government closed the beaches at the prime tourist season and now they are opening them during the worst season. This would not do anything for us and we will continue to suffer.”

27 January 2021: The widowed Bonakele Ndlovu, who began trading illegally during “apartheid times” in 1986, continues to scrape out a living to support her grandchildren.

Rastafarian Zolekhaya “General” Ndlovu, 43, has been using his stall on the promenade to sell his paintings. He says his work adorns homes in France, Germany, Canada, Japan and many African countries whose owners have visited Durban. Some of his paintings are named after his 15-year-old daughter Nonoza who, he says, “inspires” him.

Now Ndlovu and his family are threatened with eviction by the landlord of the apartment they have rented for more than a decade.

Ziyanda Dlangamandla, 27, who sells boiled chicken and dumplings to promenade traders from a plastic container she carries on her head, shares the plight of the pullers and sellers who “don’t have money to buy my food”.

Even the young men who sell sea water in containers are feeling the pinch. In some African traditions, sea water is believed to cleanse bad luck and protect people from evil spirits. A 5l container sells for R30 while a 2l costs R20. But when restrictions were in place and no one was allowed near the water, sellers had to sometimes break the law. 

“Somehow we have to try and make a living because nobody cares for us, no one gives us food, no one pays for the shelters where we live,” says a young man who does not want to give his name. “So we sneak out at night, when police are not around, to fill the containers with water.”  

27 January 2021: Rastafarian Zolekhaya “General” Ndlovu sells his paintings from a stall on the promenade but is now facing eviction because he has had so few customers in the past few months.

Missing relief funds 

Blessing Manale, spokesperson for the Department of Tourism, says his department does not understand why beachside traders and rickshaw pullers had not been paid the relief funds due to them, though he adds that no specific amount was set aside for people who trade on the promenade.

“The tourism sector … benefitted from the Temporary Employer/Employee Relief Scheme established to provide financial relief to employees … Despite financial constraints, we managed to reprioritise our budget to provide relief to [small, medium and micro enterprises] and [tour] guides.

“An amount of R200 million was redirected, which assisted 4 000 businesses through the Tourism Relief Fund. A total of R30 million was set aside to provide financial relief for freelance [tour] guides.

“It was ensured that the benefit [was] spread geographically across the country to cover even businesses in small dorpies [towns] and townships. All the funding … was distributed. All beneficiaries are available on our website,” Manale says.

27 January 2021: Zonke Cebekhulu, a trader from Umzinyathi, arranges her beaded necklaces on the Durban promenade.

Officials at Durban Tourism, an entity within the eThekwini Municipality tasked with promoting the city, blamed the city’s business support unit for not paying the traders their relief funds. 

Michael Hlangu, the city’s senior manager for informal economy, declined to comment, referring queries to the communication department. 

Msawakhe Mayisela, spokesperson for the eThekwini Municipality, promised to speak to the relevant officials but later did not take calls or respond to messages. 

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