In South Africa, Uber drivers face daily threats of violence from other cabbies

A taxi rank in Johannesburg in 2009. Image: Getty.

At 10.30pm on a Wednesday evening in June, I marched out of Johannesburg airport into a sticky, warm night. My left hand pulled my wheelie suitcase. My right hand gripped the only weapon I needed to face an unfamiliar city: an Uber-equipped iPhone.

I don’t think I’m alone when I say Uber changed my life. When a friend first recommended it last year, my knowledge of apps extended to Candy Crash Saga, and when I finally downloaded it, I was dubious. After my first journey, I was addicted. Uber’s mission is “to make transportation as simple as running water”. It soon became just as fundamental to me when I travelled.

But, just as with the provision of running water, it seems that there’s no such thing as a global solution. I’d dismissed stories of taxi driver riots against Uber in Paris; I’d laughed when a black cabbie in London told me Uber was the devil. Nothing prepared me for the situation which presented itself at Johannesburg airport.

Standing outside, ignoring shouts of “TAXI!”, a quick glance at my iPhone revealed my driver Malesala was just five minutes away. But almost immediately, he called me with very specific instructions: walk past the official pick up area and find a pole in the car park, marked with the number 17.

I found it, but the area wasn’t well-lit. It was late, and I was wary, but soon a new-ish white Corolla pulled up and a young, cool-looking guy hopped out. I smiled in relief.

My driver wasn’t so happy. Malesala shook his head as he lifted the door the boot and threw my suitcase inside. “This is fucking ridiculous.” He said, in disgusted, almost unaccented English, and slammed the door. As we sped out of the airport, I soon realised it wasn’t anger which was making him act so bizarrely. It was fear.

“Many of my friends have been attacked just there,” Malesala said, gesturing to where he’d picked me up. “We have to keep telling customers to walk further and further away, because we can’t stop.” He pointed to the Uber device attached to his dashboard. “We hide our Uber phones in our pockets, and reattach it when you get in. If they see them, they go straight for you.” The glowing rectangle made you a marked man.

Anyone with a car can become a taxi driver in South Africa, but qualifying to drive an Uber is a more rigorous process. To get a license, a driver must pay for the privilege. Uber conducts a full-background check and English literacy test, followed by an in-person interview. Reportedly, the firm also refuses any applicant with a criminal record.

These barriers to entry have left thousands of local drivers literally waiting on the side of the road – and, another driver, Sibo, told me later, “They’re angry.” Many of these drivers have “grown up with violence, carry illegal guns in their cars. It’s not their fault. Violence is just the only way they know how to deal with the situation.”

Both my drivers just laughed when I said we should go to the police. Many members of the police either own part of the local taxi companies, they told me, or are simply paid to turn a blind eye. The government has reacted by simply no longer approving new licenses for Uber drivers. Their situation seemed hopeless.

The concierge at my hotel advised against public transport: it was unsafe, he said. After a few days I found I was both scared to go anywhere in Johannesburg, and frustrated that I’d seen so little of the city.

"The glowing rectangle that makes you a marked man." Image: Getty.

The morning I was due to fly out, on a whim, I took a two-hour bus tour of Johannesburg and Soweto. By lunchtime I’d finished the tour and stood waiting at Gautrain station, in the city centre. I’d just ordered my final Uber and was careful to avoid the bank of taxis lining the kerb.

My Uber was late. When the driver, Sam, called, he seemed confused: he couldn’t hear me, or maybe he was lost, and I began to panic. There were taxis everywhere, and my tour organiser was telling me repeatedly to just forget the Uber and get in one of the waiting cars.

Eventually, spotting my Uber crawling through the traffic, I sprinted over and jumped in the back seat. I noticed for the first time a policeman standing just near where I’d waited with the tour organiser. Both men were watching us now.

We were stuck behind a wall of taxis when a large man suddenly appeared at my driver’s window, and began banging on the glass, waving his hands aggressively. He shouted the same phrase over and over again in a language I didn’t understand. Sam sat completely still. The policeman just watched. I didn’t speak, my every instinct telling me this would not end well.

But as Sam stared straight ahead I suddenly realised that he wasn’t fuming, he was completely calm. After an age, a car moved in front of us – only slightly, but enough – and Sam pulled out.

Minutes later we were speeding along a freeway towards my hotel. When I could speak again, I thanked Sam profusely for keeping it together. He explained that the man who’d chased him was a local cab driver – who he assumed had had a gun. Sometimes, he said, “you have to respect the fool to avoid the noise”.

I stared out the window at Johannesburg: new shopping complexes covering entire suburbs, makeshift homes of cardboard and crowded townships, long plains of red dirt. As we paused at a set of broken traffic lights, a man – just a civilian – had left his car and was running back and forth across the road. He was waving his arms energetically, directing masses of traffic like a pro, and all the cars were obeying him. Sam and I burst out laughing, and for five minutes we were hysterical with relief and with gratitude.

“You see?” Sam said. “For every man like that one at my window, there is one who will stop and help. He will make sure this city moves along.” 


In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.