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.” 

 
 
 
 

High streets and shopping malls face a ‘domino effect’ from major store closures

Another one bites the dust: House of Fraser plans to close the majority of its stores. Image: Getty.

Traditional retail is in the centre of a storm – and British department store chain House of Fraser is the latest to succumb to the tempest. The company plans to close 31 of its 59 shops – including its flagship store in Oxford Street, London – by the beginning of 2019. The closures come as part of a company voluntary arrangement, which is an insolvency deal designed to keep the chain running while it renegotiates terms with landlords. The deal will be voted on by creditors within the month.

Meanwhile in the US, the world’s largest retail market, Sears has just announced that it will be closing more than 70 of its stores in the near future.

This trend of major retailers closing multiple outlets exists in several Western countries – and its magnitude seems to be unrelated to the fundamentals of the economy. The US, for example, has recently experienced a clear decoupling of store closures from overall economic growth. While the US economy grew a healthy 2.3 per cent in 2017, the year ended with a record number of store closings, nearly 9,000 while 50 major chains filed for bankruptcy.

Most analysts and industry experts agree that this is largely due to the growth of e-commerce – and this is not expected to diminish anytime soon. A further 12,000 stores are expected to close in the US before the end of 2018. Similar trends are being seen in markets such as the UK and Canada.

Pushing down profits

Perhaps the most obvious impact of store closures is on the revenues and profitability of established brick-and-mortar retailers, with bankruptcies in the US up by nearly a third in 2017. The cost to investors in the retail sector has been severe – stocks of firms such as Sears have lost upwards of 90 per cent of their market value in the last ten years. By contrast, Amazon’s stock price is up over 2,000 per cent in the same period – more than 49,000 per cent when considering the last 20 years. This is a trend that the market does not expect to change, as the ratio of price to earnings for Amazon stands at ten times that of the best brick-and-mortar retailers.

Although unemployment levels reached a 17-year low in 2017, the retail sector in the US shed a net 66,500 jobs. Landlords are losing longstanding tenants. The expectation is that roughly 25 per cent of shopping malls in the US are at high risk of closing one of their anchor tenants such as a Macy’s, which could set off a series of store closures and challenge the very viability of the mall. One out of every five malls is expected to close by 2022 – a prospect which has put downward pressure on retail real estate prices and on the finances of the firms that own and manage these venues.

In the UK, high streets are struggling through similar issues. And given that high streets have historically been the heart of any UK town or city, there appears to be a fundamental need for businesses and local councils to adapt to the radical changes affecting the retail sector to preserve their high streets’ vitality and financial viability.


The costs to society

While attention is focused on the direct impacts on company finances, employment and landlord rents, store closures can set off a “domino effect” on local governments and businesses, which come at a significant cost to society. For instance, closures can have a knock-on effect for nearby businesses – when large stores close, the foot traffic to neighbouring establishments is also reduced, which endangers the viability of other local businesses. For instance, Starbucks has recently announced plans to close all its 379 Teavana stores. Primarily located inside shopping malls, they have harshly suffered from declining mall traffic in recent years.

Store closures can also spell trouble for local authorities. When retailers and neighbouring businesses close, they reduce the taxable revenue base that many municipalities depend on in order to fund local services. Add to this the reduction in property taxes stemming from bankrupt landlords and the effect on municipal funding can be substantial. Unfortunately, until e-commerce tax laws are adapted, municipalities will continue to face financial challenges as more and more stores close.

It’s not just local councils, but local development which suffers when stores close. For decades, many cities in the US and the UK, for exmaple Detroit and Liverpool, have heavily invested in efforts to rejuvenate their urban cores after years of decay in the 1970s and 1980s. Bringing shops, bars and other businesses back to once derelict areas has been key to this redevelopment. But today, with businesses closing, cities could once again face the prospect of seeing their efforts unravel as their key urban areas become less attractive and populations move elsewhere.

Commercial ecosystems featuring everything from large chain stores to small independent businesses are fragile and sensitive to change. When a store closes it doesn’t just affect employees or shareholders – it can have widespread and lasting impacts on the local community, and beyond. Controlling this “domino effect” is going to be a major challenge for local governments and businesses for years to come.

Omar Toulan, Professor in Strategy and International Management, IMD Business School and Niccolò Pisani, Assistant Professor of International Management, University of Amsterdam.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.