/ 15 September 2017

Uber drivers fight back with spotters

Uber drivers say police watched them being attacked by metered taxi drivers last week. Areas such as Hatfield
Uber drivers say police watched them being attacked by metered taxi drivers last week. Areas such as Hatfield

Fresh from retaliating against metered taxi operators, Uber and Taxify drivers have resorted to keeping “spotters” in violent hot spots and a “cavalry” poised to spring into action at the drop of a location pin on their WhatsApp group.

“When this group started, it was about informing each other about business: if you have two cars and need a driver, or something like that. But it’s now changed to being about the danger of metered taxi drivers,” Uber driver Basil said this week, declining to give his surname for fear of losing his place on the cab-hailing system’s database.

“If it is not safe in Sandton, you will alert the group and we will avoid [the area],” he added.

This week, Uber said it had received more than 200 complaints of violence against its drivers since July, and hundreds more unresolved complaints have been lodged over the past year.

Drivers contracted to Uber and Taxify have launched a fight-back against what they say is persistent victimisation by metered taxi drivers. They set a competitor’s car alight in Sandton last Thursday after two of their own vehicles were petrol-bombed.

On Tuesday, an Uber driver’s car was attacked at Pretoria’s Hatfield Gautrain station. On Wednesday night another three Taxify drivers’ cars were torched in Sunnyside. On Thursday morning, a passenger was pulled out of an Uber driver’s car by a metered taxi driver at the Gautrain Park station in the city centre.

In response, Uber is lobbying its customers to sign a petition calling on Transport Minister Joe Maswanganyi and Police Minister Fikile Mbalula “to work for the citizens of this country and ensure Uber driver-partners can continue to earn a living without fear, and consumers can choose how and with whom they travel”.

While signatures are being gathered, the ride-hailing app has employed private security guards and set up an emergency helpline.

“These security teams are able to dispatch security and medical services in emergency situations in a reduced time, in an effort to improve the safety of driver-partners who use the Uber app. Uber has also hired additional security response teams in areas such as key Gautrain stations,” Uber spokesperson Samantha Allenberg said this week.

“We spend millions of rands on private security for driver-partners, but the fact is we cannot and we should not replace law enforcement’s mandate to protect our citizens.”

On Tuesday, the transport minister arrived at the Sandton Gautrain station with a convoy of police vans and security officers, saturating the area before speaking to the warring sides.

Whereas Uber drivers called for more protection, metered taxi drivers warned that their business was dead and they would fight for their space.

On Johannesburg’s streets, Basil keeps a close eye on the WhatsApp group that offers warnings and identifies the hot spots. Last week, a day after the Uber and Taxify drivers retaliated against metered cabs, a warning flashed on the group.

“There is violence in the Sandton area and a grey Toyota Quantum is driving around Killarney and Rosebank … Pls be careful,” the message read.

“He banna … This is scary … I think we should go home for today … Guys, be careful please,” a flurry of responses came flooding in from drivers across the city.

Basil explained that, without the early warning system, he would perpetually be involved in clashes with metered cab drivers because they operate on the same routes.

The Sandton and Hatfield Gautrain stations, as well as the Rosebank Mall and Montecasino in Fourways, represent some of the most lucrative routes and most dangerous areas for cabs in Gauteng. International airports across the country are another highly contested space for customers.

“Someone like me, I move around with the panic button. When I get to areas where I’m not safe or uncomfortable, I usually drive with it, holding it in my hand,” Basil said.

“Those who are scared, you just have to cancel. Initially Uber said we aren’t allowed to carry weapons, but we are human. With what was going on, Uber wasn’t doing much to protect us. So at the end of the day, if I get attacked, it’s not Uber being attacked — it’s me. As a person, I will do whatever I can to protect myself.”

Allenberg said Uber had a “zero tolerance” approach to violence and said retaliatory attacks would lead to drivers being kicked off the app.

“We can understand the frustration that the driver-partners are feeling — this violence against them has not been easy, as all they want to do is to make an income for their families without fear, intimidation or limitation. But we have strict community guidelines that apply to both drivers (and riders) using our app.”

Basil said Uber had warned its drivers that their profiles would be terminated if they responded to the metered cab drivers with violence. This means the WhatsApp group is now their only form of defence, through messages alerting them to danger and to avoid certain areas.

A Taxify driver based in Tshwane, who did not want to be named, said he could not trust the police to protect him. “Government is not playing its part and the police are useless. In Pretoria, the police were just watching when we were attacked. How can we rely on them?” the driver asked furiously.

Another driver in the passenger seat next to the Taxify driver alternated between Uber’s and Taxify’s alerts for customers who need to be picked up, and deciding whether to accept was based on their proximity to hot spots.

“That one is right there at the Gautrain station, I can’t go there. If I go there, I must call him and say let’s meet up the road. Now that’s more airtime I’m using, you see?” he said.

“The agreement was the police were going to dispatch members in these heated areas. They did that just for a few days … and during that time things didn’t change much.”

In the midst of the confusion about whether it would be safe to return to the lucrative routes, rumours about the police taking sides are circulating among Uber and Taxify drivers.

“I’m told most of these metered taxis are owned by some police members, hence [the police] being reluctant on providing security,” a message on the group reads.

Meanwhile, Basil has accepted Uber’s restrictions on retaliating to attacks. “We will just have to check on the [WhatsApp] group if a problematic area is safe for us to go pick up clients. What else can we do since we are not allowed to fight back?”