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.”