/ 21 September 2017

Ingenuity, fair play guide efforts to help Uber and meter taxis stay in their lanes

In Sandton
In Sandton

“I ran like a lost dog that night, looking for help … But nobody was able to help me.” Mabandla Patjuju recalls the night two hijackers took him to a park, demanding to know which company he works for — Uber or Taxify — before setting him alight.

Unsatisfied with his response (“I told them I worked for myself”), one of his assailants threw the contents of the seemingly innocuous McDonald’s container in his face.

It was petrol.

Then came the lighter to his face.

“I managed to open the door and pull off the seatbelt,” he says. “But the fire … it was on my face.”

The money Patjuju made as an e-hailing driver helped him to provide for his two children and extended family. Seven people in total, he says. Unable to work since the attack in July, the roles are now reversed, with Patjuju having to rely on his family.

Speaking to the Mail & Guardian from his family home in Clau-Clau, Mpumalanga, where he is recovering, Patjuju says: “I am still thinking about plastic surgery. I don’t know … maybe the hospital will arrange plastic surgery for me.”

Patjuju is one of many e-hailing drivers who have recently been attacked by criminals and also traditional meter taxi drivers angry about being unable to compete with the technology-driven, lower-cost model of the e-hailing sector.

Vhatuka Mbelengwa is the head of the recently formed Private Public Transport Association, which aims to improve the working conditions of e-hailing drivers and engage with the meter taxi industry in the hopes of quelling these tensions.

“The problems the meter taxi sector have with us are the same problems we have internally,” says Mbelengwa. “Meter taxis complain that there are too many of us on the road and that our pricing is too low, which makes it an unfair competitive environment. But we feel the same. There isn’t a proper influx control policy. Uber and Taxify keep adding cars on the road and dropping prices. We want to see some sort of influx control.”

Linda Mahloko, Taxify’s operations manager, says the company consistently monitored the number of drivers.

“In order for Taxify and the drivers’ businesses to grow, we need to make sure that they are able to make a sustainable income. It is already well known that we have the best price structure for drivers in the market as we take a lot less commission — currently 15% — and we also give drivers additional bonuses for the amount of time they work and the trips they complete. When conditions do get tough, due to low demand and low prices, we have also been flexible enough in the past to take 0% commission from our drivers so that they may keep operating at a profitable level.”

Uber did not respond to requests for comment.

Mbelengwa says that this lack of influx control policy — which would limit the number of drivers within a certain area — is compounded by the high cost of entering the sector.

“It’s very expensive,” he says. “In addition to the cost of financing the vehicle, there is finance interest and insurance on our vehicles being anything between R1 800 and R2 500.”

He adds that, because Uber and Taxify do not have to bear these costs, “they are being reckless in how they are continually adding vehicles”.

Mahloko, however, said the number of drivers will always be balanced by the influx of rider demand in each area.

The financial strain of e-hailing drivers trying to meet their expenses often results in drivers spending more time working. This, says Mbelengwa, is making the industry increasingly unsafe.

“Often you would get into a vehicle with a driver who has not slept for 14 hours — or has been on the road for 14 hours. Now, if a driver is on the road for 14 hours a day, five days a week, it is not safe.”

Possible solutions proposed to Taxify have fallen on deaf ears, he says. “What we have suggested have just been ignored. Whenever we try and bring up these issues with Taxify, we are always told that they can’t make a decision — that the decision has to come from Estonia. But we don’t think the decision-makers in Estonia understand the dangers we face here. Ideally, we would like the apps tailored to accommodate the South African context.”

At an office park in Sandton, Dingaan Motloung is filling out paperwork and having his fingerprints taken as he registers to become a driver using the recently launched YooKoo Ride app. The app has been designed specifically for the South African meter taxi sector.

“I read about it on Facebook, so I decided to give it a try,” says Motloung.

Kenny Niemach, the chief operating officer of YooKoo, says: “We designed this app because we saw a need in the market and felt that, as a South African entity, we wanted to compete, but also be providing a solution.”

Currently only available in Johannesburg, the plan is to get the 180 000 meter taxi drivers nationally to use the app.

“The uptake has been quite good, really,” says Niemach. “We’ve got 400 drivers currently and a group of 800 waiting.”

“The issue is getting them on to the system [which] is not as easy as everybody thinks,” he concedes. “They have to fill out forms, get vetted and trained. It is tiresome. You have to do groups of 20 or 30 at a time. It’s not as easy as we thought it would be, simply because we are trying to do it correctly.”

Niemach says, to compete with other e-hailing apps, “the entire industry needs a revamp”.

“It’s not just technology,” he says. “The drivers need to be trained; the cars need to be changed.”

To become a partner driver with Uber and Taxify, cars have to be no older than three and five years respectively — a barrier to many who would like to enter the sector.

Niemach says that “many, many cars” being used in the meter taxi sector would have to be renewed.

“Parts of their fleets are older than five years and this doesn’t meet the requirements that we are looking for. The only way to compete at the highest level is to have proper vehicles and proper handsets. It is really just being equipped to compete.

“You can’t come with something old and think it’s going to compete in a market that is already used to something of a higher standard. So we do have our requirements, yes, but at the same time we are looking at ways as to how we can renew fleets that are old. So we’re not throwing anyone away.”

Niemach and Mbelengwa might represent competing sectors, but both believe that regulation of the e-hailing sector is what is needed.

“You only have so many people living or working within a certain radius, so you can’t have too many cars on the road. This is the problem. We are fighting and saying let’s maintain the integrity of the business. When you start to look at the business as a whole, it is in chaos — simply because of the surplus of vehicles on the road,” says Niemach.

“In a country that is not lawless, you need to abide by the law. So, what makes Uber and Taxify exempt? What is good for one must certainly be good for another. Why must the meter taxi sector pay for permits and routes and Uber and Taxify not? This is the issue.”

On Sunday September 17, the Gauteng provincial government announced that the e-hailing sector in the province would soon be regulated. Premier David Makhura said legislation regulating the meter taxi sector would be amended to include e-hailing services. Says Niemach: “In regulating, it levels the playing field.”

Taxify’s Mahloko says the company welcomes the decision. “This is a good step forward and we hope to co-operate to solve some of the other problems that are evident in the sector.”

Reuben Mzayiya, a representative of the Gauteng Meter Taxi Operators, says the announcement will help to quell tensions between the sectors. “We have no problem with the e-hailing sector, just with the way it was introduced and how they operate. But we welcome this decision, yes. We embrace it.”

Responding to the announcement, Mbelengwa says: “We are happy to see this step being taken. We need to look at things holistically — not only at the industry, but also at the life of the driver. We need to ensure that young men can make a decent, dignified career out of this.”

At 22 years old, Motloung is one such man.

“I live with my family. There are six of us. And with the money I make from driving, I can help add to what is needed in our house,” he says, smiling.

Unable to work until he has fully recovered from the brutal attack he suffered, Patjuju is determined that he will return to driving to support his family again.

“I will go back to work, yes,” he says. Still nursing the scars, he adds: “But I am still in the process of buying myself a firearm. I have to protect myself.” — Additional reporting by Oupa Nkosi

Carl Collison is the Other Foundation’s Rainbow Fellow at the Mail & Guardian