A ride with Uber, Joburg’s controversial convenience

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I’m standing on the side of the road like an orphan after a Russian bar brawl. Glancing over my shoulder and nervously paying acute attention to who is around me, I take my smartphone out of my pocket.

See, I just got off the Gautrain at the Rosebank station and I need to get to the htxt.africa office. My exact location is not the problem, but I’m about to open the Uber app and request a ride.

If you’ve been keeping up with local news recently, you will know that Uber isn’t the most loved taxi service technology platform at the moment as far as metered taxi drivers are concerned.

If you’re not familiar with the layout of the outside pickup point, Oxford road in front of The Zone in Rosebank has a small side route where the Gautrain buses and metered taxis park. This is where I find myself, and there are metered taxis parked three cars deep on either end.

In light of recent events, I’m genuinely concerned that I might be discovered trying to request an Uber. I mean, I’m exactly 6-foot, shaven head and a beard, but I don’t exactly scream “leave me alone or I’ll cut you.”

“Oh just do it. At worst hold you phone to your ear and pretend that you are talking if someone approaches” was a fleeting thought that actually made me smile.

I have been to far worse places in South Africa – and abroad. I’ve spent a week in Rwanda listening to farmers talk about agriculture, and I became a three-day vegetarian in Ethiopia for an ICT conference.

To be brutally honest, I did walk up and down the sidewalk first, looking for a less inconspicuous way to request a ride.

Eventually opening the app and checking to see that there is in fact a driver in the vicinity, I hit the ‘request a ride’ button.

Oh balls. A splash screen has confirmed my worst fear. I’m about to die.

“We are aware of isolated intimidation by metered taxi(sic) outside the Gautrain,” reads the message.

The app advises that passengers meet their drivers inside the Gautrain station’s drop-off and pick-up points. Right… off I go to cross the road, feeling slightly better about the fact that I won’t have to relay to my colleagues about the time I got my face stoved in.

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The rest of the Uber process is business as usual. I’ve made use of Uber before. Ok, I’ve only used it once before, but how difficult can it be?

My driver shows up fairly quickly after I went go through the rigmarole of actually requesting a ride, and yes, I make sure I’m safely inside the confines of the Gautrain station to do that.

Checking my surroundings, I see a pretty shifty-looking fellow hovering in the parking area. Or I could just be paranoid. Who knows…?

In the eight minutes it takes to drive from Rosebank to Highlands North, I manage to talk to my driver about the excrement that has been flung into Uber’s fan.

I don’t have just any driver, I will have you know. Rather proudly, he tells me that he is the best Uber driver in Johannesburg, mumbles something about a 6-star rating and said that often ferries Uber South Africa CEO Alon Lits around.

I sheepishly ask for his view on Uber’s recent troubles, deep down knowing pretty well that he will side with the company that has awarded him with the responsibility of re-enacting scenes from Driving Miss Daisy. In this case, Driving Mister Lits.

“It’s chaos,” he says. I tell him that I work for a technology news agency and have been following the events with more than a passing interest. I’m not too sure if that point sunk in with him, seeing as the conversation was about his health and well-being, and not what I do for a living.

“During the day it is fine, because there are security guards posted outside the stations to keep us safe.”

That shifty-looking guy I spotted earlier? Yep, it was an undercover security guard.

The drive wasn’t very long, but in the short time it took, my driver manages to convey to me that the situation for him and his colleagues can get very hairy at the best of times. Recalling a specific incident over the weekend, he told me that they were barred from entered Melville’s main strip.

Embarrassed, drivers had to pick up their passengers a few blocks away at the SABC Buildings. If true, that is really not good for business.

“But they will never be able to stop Uber in Johannesburg,” he tells me. “Maybe in other smaller places, but not here.”

Pulling up into the htxt.africa driveway, I shake his hand, wish him luck and we part ways. In case you were wondering, my Uber ride cost R44. A metered taxi would have been R120. I checked.

Charlie Fripp

Charlie Fripp

Charlie started his professional life as a motoring journalist for a community newspaper in Mpumalanga, Charlie explored different journalistic angles since his entry into the fast-paced world of publishing in 2006. While fostering a passion for the arts, Charlie developed a love for technology – both which allowed him to serve as Entertainment and Technology Editor for an online publication. Charlie has since been heavily involved in consumer technology for various websites and publications. He thoroughly enjoys World War II films and cerebral documentaries; aviation; photography and indie music. Oh yes, and he also has a rather strange obsession with collecting coffee mugs from his travels.

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