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A (bus) journey through history

Zainul Aberdeen at a Transport Exhibition held at KwaMuhle Museumin Durban. Picture Zanele Zulu / Independent Newspapers

Zainul Aberdeen at a Transport Exhibition held at KwaMuhle Museumin Durban. Picture Zanele Zulu / Independent Newspapers

Published Jul 21, 2022

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ZAINUL Aberdeen Dawood, a journalist and author, will launch his second book on the Indian bus industry at the Durban International Book Fair on August 1.

Phoenix Buses - Social Space and Pride of a Community 1976 to 2021, is a historical exploration of the buses that traversed the roads of Phoenix and Durban, often providing more than just transport.

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Dawood explores the topic through a number of narratives, including the many personalities that make up the industry, like drivers, mechanics and bus owners. All of this against the backdrop of living under the apartheid regime and the struggles over bus routes, through to the industry today.

Dawood, 42, of Mayville, said his second book was inspired by his memories of growing up in Mobeni, Isipingo, Avoca and Warwick Avenue, and his experience of having worked on Indian buses. The first book, Indian buses: The History, the Memories, the Personalities, was published in 2012.

The married father of three said his fascination with buses started in his childhood.

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“It might have been a calling from a young age, maybe 4 or 5. I created buses using Lego blocks and pushed them around the house. I even created bus stops along the passage and in my bedroom. I used a black pen to mark the bus stops on the wall and wrote the name of the bus company on a piece of paper, cut it out and stuck it on the side of the bus.

“My mother, Zohra Khan, and I travelled a lot on buses to and from school, that was between Avoca and Grey Street, in Durban. We used the Effingham buses and occasionally the Phoenix bus, travelling along Old North Coast Road.”

He started veering towards working in the industry from 1995.

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“In 1995, when the Bonela housing scheme was built, we began taking the bus to and from school. After a year of travelling on the buses and making friends with the drivers and conductors, I began hanging around the buses at the Soldiers Way Rank.

“I assisted bus driver Raymond Singh to collect fares or with general work that entailed sweeping between trips, assisting passengers, and wiping the seats. I only knew how to collect the fares and to do general work on the bus. At the time, I was not aware of the historical background of the buses."

A chance meeting with a bus owner led him to a more involved path in the industry.

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“On frequent trips to the bus depot in West Road, I met owner Azeem Bux. One day he offered me a job as a rank manager/inspector. I was only 17. This task was on another level. My co-workers and I used to stand on the roadside at a particular spot on Brickfield Road. We were tasked with counting the passengers who boarded the buses and ensuring the drivers adhered to the loading times.

Dawood worked in the bus industry between 1996 and 2004. He worked for the Mayville Group, covering Mayville Coach Lines/Mayville Bus Service/Mayville Transport. These buses travelled the routes Bonela-Durban-Bonela-Wiggins-Dunbar Road-Cato Manor/Chesterville.

“There were a maximum of 15 buses in the fleet. In peak hour, it was 15 buses per hour. The daily working hours were from 5am to 8pm. For several years it was seven days a week. We had to get on board every bus at the checkpoint and count the buses. The passengers would jokingly remark that they were being counted like sheep.”

“It was difficult because we worked in the open on the roadside, without any shelter from the weather elements. We constantly feuded with the conductors and drivers to get the count right. The buses were overloaded and made our task difficult. The purpose of the inspector was sort of like a banker. Our count of the passengers brought in the revenue for the company. The drivers, throughout history, had a habit of not declaring all the money they made to the company by the end of the day.”

He said when the mini buses emerged after 2001, the fleet was reduced but the working time remained the same.

Dawood’s passion for the industry led to him becoming a collector of pictures of Indian buses in Durban - paving the way for his books later.

“In 2010, I was curious to find out if my bus colleagues had images of the buses. I soon began collecting these pictures... Trying to find research material on the buses was a daunting task because little existed aside from a report done in the late 1970s by SS Singh.

“Singh’s report formed the foundation that I built my research upon. I associated myself with former drivers, one of them Sivan Moses of Clare Estate Omnibus Service. Together we drove to different areas where we interviewed former bus owners or their families or bus drivers. This led to the collection of more pictures and material.

“I realised, that like myself, bus employees or owners were never recognised for the contribution we made to the transport sector. It was a thankless job. Bus drivers were heroes in the community. Research showed this.

“The book has immense historical information and is a tribute to some of the employees and owners of the bus companies. Not everyone participated in the research and if they did, it would have been a more spectacular book.”

In his first book, Dawood looked at the history of Indian buses and some of the bus companies. In his new book, he focusses specifically on Phoenix.

“Phoenix had the most number of non-subsidised buses in South Africa. I have fond memories of travelling on those buses. The company I worked for had a bus working in Phoenix. We were often tasked with checking on the Phoenix bus as well. Travelling to Avoca on a Phoenix bus was always a splendid drive along Umgeni and North Coast Road.

“Phoenix had a different vibe to that of the other Indian suburb of Chatsworth. This book is also the first to give recognition to African owned bus companies from Inanda. That itself was a splendid history.”

The Phoenix Bus rank along Warwick Avenue/ Centenary Road in Durban. 1986. Picture by Independent Newspapers

Dawood said he collected more than 8 000 pictures from various companies, drivers, conductors and his personal collection.

“There is enough material for more books for areas like Chatsworth/Merebank and Clairwood and other suburbs.”

He said his goal was to educate people on the subject while highlighting local authors, and his own pursuit in documenting history.

“It is about educating people about the role of Durban’s private owned transport history and it also serves as a memory to those who travelled on them.”

The book, published by Micromega Publishers, is available at local book stands with more stores to be announced in due course.

Phoenix Buses will be launched at the Imbizo Conference Centre at Sibaya Casino on August 1 at 8pm. The event is free to attend.

For more information on the book fair, download the programme from www.madeindurban.co.za

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