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.” 

 
 
 
 

How getting a dog made me hate London less

A dog called Martha. Image: Jamie Ross.

I never have been anything but a staunch hater of London. Growing up in what a friend from Chicago called “a forest reserve”, my entire life has been split between a suburban one in a leafy town near Dayton, Ohio and an urban one, spent in stupidly pretty, and still fairly leafy, Edinburgh. I moved to London for a hot second in 2016, hated my job as well as my surroundings, and left, pretty much immediately.

And then, almost two years later, I was offered my current role at the New Statesman, and I packed up my shit and dragged my reluctant boyfriend with me to do it all over again. I sort of enjoyed my summer in London – but I felt strongly that living in the city would never feel like anything other than a necessary evil.

I live in – this is your moment to laugh and call me a posh prick – Notting Hill. It’s a decent location, has more trees and parks than other parts of the city, and, most importantly, is the closest I could get to replicating my old neighbourhood of Stockbridge in Edinburgh, which I loved dearly. But even this isn’t enough to entirely counteract the fact my physical surroundings, on my commute to the office by the Temple, made me feel constantly claustrophobic and stressed. London is cold and unfriendly, compared to many parts of this country, and it is filthy – not in a snobby, prissy, precious fuckhead way, but in a “My life expectancy has probably dropped by three years breathing in this polluted air and stepping on broken glass” way. For my first few months in London, in the middle of the heat wave, walking the streets was like walking through an endless sludge: this was not a city I liked nor one I, really, wanted to live in.

Until I got a puppy.

The one condition my boyfriend imposed when he agreed to trudge down to London with me was that we find a flat where our letting agreement said that we could have dog. So, three months after our move, we got Martha, a twelve-week-old black cockapoo.

Getting her changed our lives in a lot of ways. It’s made it impossible for us to leave the house without having a human being on attendance to watch her like a hawk. It means I now have to wake up at 6:45am every day, weekends included, so that she can take a shit. She has improved our lives remarkably - I mean, we have a living floof doing sweet and adorable shit in our house – but she has changed things a lot.

And the thing I least expected this goddam dog to change has been the way has made me feel more integrated into this godforsaken city: she’s made me appreciate London, even with its downsides.

Actually, something else happened, without which I don’t think my point of view would have changed. Almost immediately after getting Martha – and I mean, like, within hours – I contracted a disgusting cold. The day after that cold cleared up, I got violent conjunctivitis, like the disgusting seven-year-old I am, which took a week to get over.

These two illnesses, combined, lasted around two weeks, so I was trapped at home for roughly seven days of the ten I would normally have been at work. That meant I was around to relieve the puppy burden from my home-working boyfriend.

I was tasked with dragging my puss-filled eyes out to let our dog have a run around, and to get her to piss every couple of hours. This new responsibility forced me to explore the neighbourhood that, for the three months previous, I had generally ignored. What I thought was the worst timing known to man was, not to exaggerate, life-changing. I’m not sure I would have come to this realisation about my new home had it not happened.

 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Another great day at the park! Pic by fellow small creature @esther.dominy.

A post shared by Martha The Dog (@heythereitsmartha) on

Happy City by Charles Montgomery is a book all about how urban planning can make or break our wellbeing – what commutes, cars, bikes, and greenspace do to our mental health. One portion of the book is spent debunking the idea that the sheer amount of greenspace in an area is what makes us happy. Montgomery argues that it’s actually the regularity of greenspace that makes a real difference – it’s not just how much grass and trees there is in the city you live in, but how often you get to see it.


Pre-Martha, my exposure to grass amounted to the occasional lunch in a garden and a visit to Hyde Park once or twice a month. But within a matter of days of getting a dog, I learned that I had not one, not two, not three, but five (five!) piss locations within five (again: five!) minutes of my house. Some were suitable for little more than the aforementioned – but others gave her enough room to run after sticks, leaves, tennis balls, and, her favourite, other dogs, so that she’d be pleasantly exhausted for the rest of the day. What I originally thought was just an expanse of buildings and pavement stretching from my flat to Hyde Park was actually filled with pockets of green spaces that made this trash-laden hell-hole feel a lot less oppressive.

Spending time at parks where other dogs also go to piss meant I started to make relationships with other dog-owners too. For the first time in any place I’ve lived in outside of my home town, I actually started to meet my neighbours, and learn about things that were happening in my neighbourhood, that I would never otherwise never known about. I now know Tiggy, Rex, Bubba, and Charlie, as well as their respective owners. I also know about good pubs, family-run restaurants, and free events that are far better than the deeply average, pretentious brunch place recommended to me by The Culture Trip. My neighbourhood has feeling like a dead space between Tesco, my bus stop, and the tube, to a place I can see as a respite from the rest of this stressful city, full of people I know and new places I’d have otherwise not thought twice about.

 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Me and some new friends from the other day! Hoping for some more social time this weekend 

A post shared by Martha The Dog (@heythereitsmartha) on

And taking her out at the same time every day, around the 7am mark, means we then almost always run into the same people. A very sweet kid walks to school around the same time and always smiles at her. We see the same woman with her dog, who always greets Martha with aggressive barking, ultimately ending in a congenial ass sniff. We let her jump up at the incredibly patient builders doing construction on a building at the end of our street.

This morning ritual, seeing my neighbourhood when it’s not rammed with tourists but is quiet and reserved for people who live or work nearby, has become a way to decompress at the start of every day. And as a woman, being up and out when it’s often dark, but seeing people I now recognise, means my neighbourhood has become less intimidating. For the first time in London, I feel safe and comfortable even late at night.

Beyond the confines of my neighbourhood, Martha has made me see London, not for what it does for me, but for what it provides for her. Never have I ever had such an appreciation for London’s public transport system than when I got my dog, who wears a big stupid grin at all times when riding the bus. (Her internal monologue honestly appears to be an endless loop of, “ALL OF THIS STUFF WOW MORE STUFF OH GOD REALLY COULD THERE ACTUALLY BE MORE STUFF HELLO EVERYONE HI OH HI WOULD YOU LIKE TO PET MY HEAD?”)

Even long journeys are now a delight, because watching your puppy be amazed, fascinated, and happy at all times, eventually passing out from exhaustion at all the energy expended, is incredibly heart-warming. Faced from the bus, London, even at its busiest, feels far better with my dog than on my own: her pure, unadulterated excitement is enough to make holding a wild animal on a packed motor vehicle worthwhile.

 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

dad taught me love • dad taught me patience • dad taught me pain

A post shared by Martha The Dog (@heythereitsmartha) on

I’m almost certain I will never love London. I don’t think I will ever feel charmed enough by the charming parts to outweigh the onslaught of the, often, literal shit it brings with it. Not everything about having a dog in London is great, of course: there is trash everywhere, trash I used to pass nonchalantly but now have to heave my dog away from in case she eats a used condom or even another dog’s shit. And, obviously, living in a city is probably never great for an animal compared to, say, a suburb or the countryside.

But through my dog I’ve learned what’s actually around me, not just what I narrowly perceive on my begrudging walk to work. Doing that has made London feel a lot less like my own personal hell. Slowly, Martha is making London like some kind of twisted, imperfect, home for me.

Sarah Manavis is the digital culture and tech writer at the New Statesman. She tweets as @sarahmanavis.

Martha Ross-Manavis is small and cute dog. You can follow her on Instagram at @heythereitsmartha.