‘You burn our cars, we burn yours’ - drivers in Joburg's Uber-taxi war

The headquarters of Uber in San Francisco. (Eric Risberg, AP)
The headquarters of Uber in San Francisco. (Eric Risberg, AP)

The lure of a better income made a former waiter employed at Fourways Mall risk life and limb to become a driver for Uber and Taxify.

“When I go to the CBD, I just drop the person off and make a U-turn because I fear for my life.”

He knows he is not making as much money as his more experienced colleagues, who drive passengers everywhere. He is more cautious about who he picks up and where he goes.

“I know the little money that I make saves my life. My family still wants to see me again,” said the driver, who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation.

Uber drivers have accused Transport Minister Joe Maswanganyi of favouritism towards metered taxi drivers, claiming he does this because Uber is owned by foreign entities.

In the latest violence, an Uber car was petrol-bombed near the Gautrain station in Sandton, allegedly by metered taxi drivers at about 7pm on Thursday.

Uber drivers told City Press government was failing to protect them because of a perception that Uber was destroying the local metered taxi industry.

Angry Uber drivers said they were forced to retaliate and had vandalised parked metered taxis. They said police were failing to investigate cases of intimidation and assault, and the torching of their cars.

At least one metered taxi was torched near the Sandton Convention Centre.

“About seven guys once attacked me at Park Station when I was picking up a customer,” said another Uber driver, who also asked not to be named.

“One of the guys wanted to stab me with a sharp object,” he said.

It was tough knowing that he could be attacked and possibly killed. He said it was disturbing that the attackers were intimidating and, in some cases, dragging Uber customers out of cars.

Another driver said that, although he feared for his life, he could not stop working because he had to provide for his family.

Uber SA on Friday called on South Africans to sign a petition calling on Maswanganyi and Police Minister Fikile Mbalula to ensure Uber driver-partners could work in safety, and that commuters could choose how they travelled.

It said that, despite discussions with regulators and policy makers, there had been more than 200 recorded attacks on Uber driver-partners since July, and that no meaningful interventions or arrests had been made.

On Friday, Maswanganyi condemned the violence and appealed to parties to adhere to the National Land Transport Act. During a meeting on July 27, all parties agreed to uphold the provisions of the act, he said.

Commuters caught in Uber-taxi ‘war’

My colleague and I were in the throes of tweeting, writing and snapping away at the Businesswoman of the Year Awards at the Sandton Convention Centre when we received a WhatsApp message just before 8pm: “Please be safe ... two Ubers were burnt by metered taxi guys tonight in Sandton.”

We took a chance and called an Uber anyway. The app had a warning message about the earlier events and suggested we meet our driver at one of the nearby hotels.

We walked towards it, past the charred remains of a car in a parking space outside the hotel. A metro cop car drove past, slowly. A tow truck was reversing into West Street to drag the scrap metal out of sight.

Our driver called to negotiate a different pick-up location, so we turned around and walked back past the convention centre to the other end of Maude Street.

One flick of the hazards was the sign he was our ride. The driver was tense and jumpy. He asked if we were aware of the war between metered taxi operators and Uber drivers.

Clearly troubled, he told us that his colleagues had fled the attacks, leaving their cars at the mercy of the flames. He told us about the Uber drivers’ threat of retaliation: “If this is the way it’s going to be – you burn our cars, we burn your cars.”

After safely taking us to our destination, he cautiously drove across the intersection, to his next customer. – Phelokazi Mbude

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