In­clu­siv­ity can help to nav­i­gate cul­tural is­sues

Poster child for new shar­ing econ­omy should pro­duce a win-win sit­u­a­tion

African Independent - - BUSINESS -

Uber South Africa has since ap­proached the Labour Court to have the CCMA’s rul­ing set aside. In a state­ment, Uber as­sured the pub­lic this le­gal mat­ter was a long way from be­ing re­solved, and that nei­ther side – pre­sum­ably Uber on one and the seven feud­ing driv­ers on the other – is in any po­si­tion to call a win just yet.

As far as I’m con­cerned, Uber’s po­si­tion is prob­lem­atic be­cause it be­trays the com­pany’s pre-oc­cu­pa­tion with achiev­ing com­plete and ut­ter dom­i­na­tion – not just in South Africa, but around the world. Call me an ide­al­ist, but surely the new shar­ing econ­omy trend that Uber is surf­ing shouldn’t be about big tech play­ers win­ning at ev­ery­one else’s ex­pense. We should all be on the same side – back­ing in­clu­sive progress.

Dis­claimer: I am a fre­quent user of the Uber’s ser­vices, and if there’s any­one hop­ing the com­pany gets its cul­tural is­sues sorted out so it can fo­cus on win­ning over­all, or at least most of the stake­hold­ers cur­rently ag­grieved by them, it’s me.

Sim­i­larly, I’m root­ing for so­ci­ety at large to com­mit to find­ing ways to har­ness the on-de­mand mar­ket­place trend to pro­duce a win-win sit­u­a­tion for every­body. Cer­tainly, as the poster child for the new shar­ing econ­omy, Uber should be lead­ing the way in help­ing the world es­tab­lish how that can hap­pen.

The prob­lem is, up un­til he re­cently stepped down as the com­pany’s chief ex­ec­u­tive, Kalan­ick’s less-than-el­e­gant ap­proach to pur­su­ing suc­cess at Uber was to stomp into as many mar­kets all over the world, in­tent on dis­rup­tion and dom­i­nance by any means nec­es­sary. That has cre­ated a prob­lem­atic sce­nario in which Uber’s sus­tained growth and push to­wards prof­itabil­ity seems to have hap­pened at the ex­pense of any­one, and in­deed, any­thing that stands in the tech gi­ant’s way.

Musa Kalenga is a Zam­bian dig­i­tal mar­ket­ing maven based in Jo­han­nes­burg, South Africa.

He is for­merly Face­book Africa’s client part­ner and is cur­rently the chief ex­ec­u­tive of a new adtech ven­ture he co-founded, Mi­cro­tis­ing. As a fre­quent co-host on the African Tech Round-up pod­cast, Kalenga has of­ten ex­pressed his dis­con­tent­ment with Uber’s prob­lem­atic cul­tural is­sues, and high­lighted how Kalan­ick’s nox­ious lead­er­ship style has neg­a­tively im­pacted the com­pany’s prospects on the con­ti­nent.

In a re­cent episode of the pro­gramme, Kalenga cited a Har­vard Busi­ness Re­view ar­ti­cle by Ben­jamin Edel­man en­ti­tled “Uber Can’t Be Fixed – It’s Time for Reg­u­la­tors to Shut It Down”.

In the piece, Edel­man – who strikes me as an zeal­ous Marx­ist – makes a case for what he calls Uber’s “fun­da­men­tal il­le­gal­ity”.

Now, while nei­ther Kalenga and I sub­scribe to the ex­treme view that Uber should be shut­tered, one can’t ig­nore how, in many re­spects, the com­pany’s suc­cess has been pred­i­cated on a will­ing­ness to flout reg­u­la­tions by launch­ing first and ask­ing ques­tions later.

The in­con­ve­nient truth for Uber’s de­trac­tors is that their mis­sion would be a non-is­sue if the mar­ket hadn’t en­thu­si­as­ti­cally bought into the com­pany’s fairly straight for­ward value propo­si­tion.

While I, along with mil­lions of oth­ers around the world, have come to ap­pre­ci­ate the con­ve­nience that Uber has brought into our lives, that hasn’t made me blind to their short­com­ings as an or­gan­i­sa­tion.

It would seem that on one end of the spec­trum lies Uber and its un­healthy ob­ses­sion with achiev­ing ubiq­uity and prof­itabil­ity.

At the other end, stand an­tiUber ac­tivists who feel that on-de­mand plat­form poster chil­dren like Uber and Airbnb not only nor­malise a cul­ture of du­bi­ous com­mer­cial in­ge­nu­ity – read il­le­gal­ity – but also up­end liveli­hoods with lit­tle or no thought to how their in­no­va­tions might neg­a­tively im­pact so­ci­ety.

Then, some­where in the mid­dle of that con­tin­uum, we find Uber driver-part­ners, who, while con­tent to make a de­cent liv­ing us­ing Uber’s plat­form, are jus­ti­fi­ably dis­sat­is­fied with the firm’s ten­dency to keep them at arm’s length when­ever it suits them – not least when driv­ers have in the past sought re­lief from vi­o­lent mem­bers of the tra­di­tional me­tered taxi com­mu­nity.

I’m in no po­si­tion to ques­tion the mo­tives of the seven driv­ers who hauled Uber to the CCMA for repa­ra­tions, but I’m struck by the irony of how their choice to pur­sue their own wel­fare (in­deed, they might ar­gue they are act­ing for the greater good of their com­mu­nity) by mount­ing a le­gal at­tack on the ride-shar­ing plat­form, might neg­a­tively com­pro­mise their fu­ture prospects to earn a liv­ing driv­ing for Uber or in­deed any other ride­hail­ing plat­form.

Be­cause if the Labour Court up­holds the CCMA’s de­ci­sion and Uber is forced to as­sume the bur­den of be­ing an em­ployer and a pub­lic trans­port service provider in terms of South African law, that will likely im­pact the sus­tain­abil­ity of their busi­ness model. And that could pave the way for Trans­port Min­is­ter Joe Maswan­ganyi to fol­low through on threats to force Uber driv­ers to ap­ply for pub­lic trans­port li­cences that would, in turn, re­quire them to op­er­ate in pre-al­lo­cated ge­o­graphic zones.

My frus­tra­tion is that the folks at Uber are clearly in it for them­selves, as are the com­pany’s driver-part­ners, seven of whom are in full self-preser­va­tion mode. As for the tra­di­tional taxi in­dus­try? Well, the streets can tes­tify to how they’ve been let­ting sjam­boks and fire light­ing cer­e­monies re­in­force their self-in­ter­est.

Sadly, it seems none of the afore­men­tioned par­ties is com­mit­ted to back­ing an in­clu­sive agenda that puts so­ci­ety’s best in­ter­ests first.

Andile Ma­suku is a broad­caster and en­tre­pre­neur based in Jo­han­nes­burg, South Africa. He is the ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer at AfricanTechRoundup. com. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @ Ma­sukuAndile and The African Tech Round-up @african­roundup


Uber has ar­gued it is sim­ply a vir­tual mar­ket­place that con­nects driv­ers and pas­sen­gers and is not an em­ployer.

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