There’s no need to copy Silicon Valley tendencies
THE RECENT firing of executive director, Daudi Were, at Ushahidi – the much-lauded Kenyan crisis-mapping software non-profit company – following serious allegations of sexual harassment coming to light, has demonstrated that Africa’s emerging start-up scene is not immune to acquiring wholly undesirable Silicon Valley tendencies.
A growing sexism and sexual harassment list of shame that now includes international heavy hitters like Uber’s founder and former chief executive Travis Kalanick, 500 Startups founder Dave McClure and even the legendary venture capitalist Chris Sacca, has reportedly lead to one of the US’s most influential start-up incubators-come-venture capital funds, Y Combinator, e-mailing an online whistle-blowing form to 3 500 entrepreneurs, to encourage them to report inappropriate sexual conduct by venture capitalists.
I believe that by failing to act decisively months ago when evidence implicating Were was brought forward by the alleged victim, Angela Kabari, Ushahidi’s directors betrayed their willingness to normalise the prevalence of sexual misconduct by powerful men who, no doubt, believe their influential positions in the tech industry render them untouchable.
Meanwhile, there is arguably a link between the sexist, profit-obsessed, winner-takes-all culture encouraged by many individuals and organisations within America’s glitzy start-up investment scene and the seemingly unrelated push-back against Uber in countries like South Africa, which, while far-removed from Silicon Valley, is no doubt impacted by its proclivities.
This dynamic might, to some extent, explain why some world-leading tech giants like IBM, Facebook and Google – who would rather not be associated with Silicon Valley’s toxic vibes – go to great lengths to promote their pro-female aspirations, while minimising their commitment to chasing raw capitalist ambitions.
According to a ruling made by South Africa’s Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) in July 2017, an employer-employee relationship does, in fact, exist between Uber and driver-partners. This declaration came in the wake of Uber being dragged to the CCMA several months ago by seven driver-partners who alleged that they were unfairly deactivated by the service.
The ride-hailing service has long maintained that it is simply a virtual marketplace that connects drivers and passengers and not an employer – citing the fact that Uber doesn’t own cars or have drivers on their payroll.
Since CCMA commissioner Winnie Everett ruled in this matter, Uber South Africa has been at pains to “clarify” that the determination only applies to the seven individual drivers who acted against them, and not to all of the 2 500 odd driver-partners they currently “contract” across the country.
No win yet
Uber South Africa has since approached the nation’s Labour Court to have the CCMA’s ruling set aside. In a statement, Uber assured the public that this legal matter was a long way away 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 preoccupation 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 Uber’s services, and if there’s anyone hoping that the company gets its cultural issues sorted out so that it can focus on winning over all, 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, Travis 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’s created a troublesome scenario in which Uber’s sustained growth and push towards profitability seems to have to happen 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 was formerly a client partner at Facebook Africa and is currently the chief executive of a new adtech venture he co-founded called 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 a 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 blatantly flout regulations by launching first and asking questions later.
The inconvenient truth for Uber’s detractors, however, is that their mission would be a non-issue if markets hadn’t so enthusiastically bought into the company’s fairly attractive 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, I’m not 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 anti-Uber 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 the firm’s platform, are justifiably dissatisfied with the company’s tendency to keep them at arms length whenever it suits them – not least when they have 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 (they might well argue that 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 ride-hailing platform.
Because if the Labour Court holds up 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 irreparably impact the sustainability of their business model.
That could then pave the way for Transport Minister Joe Maswanganyi to follow through on threats to force Uber drivers to apply for public transport licences, and that would result in Uber drivers being required 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 no doubt in full self-preservation mode at the moment.
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 appears that none of the aforementioned parties are committed to backing an inclusive agenda that puts society’s best interests first.
Andile Masuku is a broadcaster and entrepreneur based in Johannesburg. He is the executive producer at AfricanTechRoundup.com. Follow him on Twitter @MasukuAndile and The African Tech Round-up @africanroundup.
Dave McClure (left), the chief executive and founder of 500 Startups and Travis Kalanick, the co-founder and chief executive of Uber, are on a growing sexism and sexual harrassment list of shame.