In the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries as increasing numbers migrated to urban centers to find work, thousands of men from the heart of Zululand sought out positions as rickshaw drivers to avoid what they saw as emasculating jobs in domestic service. Though over the years, the number of rickshaw drivers and their opportunities for economic advancement has substantially decreased, their status has steadily increased, becoming symbols of ethnic tourism. At the same time, rickshaw drivers are highly embedded in local contexts, as they all hail from Mahlabathini in the heart of Zululand and operate their businesses as family institutions. Wives, daughters, and sons all work together to support the driver, maintain the rickshaw, design and sew the costumes and headgear worn by the drivers, and inherit the positions when the drivers retire.
Intensive oral history work with drivers and their families would examine the familial nature of this work, as well as further investigate the men (and women) behind these drivers whose image has become synonymous not only with Durban but with Zuluness more broadly. I plan to link these local, personal concerns with the broader Indian Ocean historiography on rickshaw drivers as a specialized class of labor. By exploring these highly public service-providers from a historical standpoint, I hope to expand understandings of the nature of migrant labor in South Africa, as well as the commodification of ethnicity in South Africa.