Uber driv­ers fight back with spot­ters

The war with me­tered taxis has es­ca­lated as calls for the gov­ern­ment to sort it out grow louder

Mail & Guardian - - News - Go­van Whit­tles

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?”

App set: Uber driv­ers say po­lice watched them be­ing at­tacked by me­tered taxi driv­ers last week. Ar­eas such as Hat­field (above), Gau­train sta­tions and air­ports are hot­beds of vi­o­lence. Photo by Gallo Im­ages/Alet Pre­to­rius

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