A joyous and enlightening ride with South African Uber woman

It was clear from the outset, when the image of a metre taxi driving black woman popped on my screen, that I was going to have an interesting Uber trip on this day. The deep Zulu speaking Sis Thembi did not disappoint. By Vula Mthimkhulu

We are talking about a woman who in pushing the gender barriers in this industry has seen it all. A Chilean tourist who came to South Africa to witness Mandela’s burial ceremony picked her Toyota Tazz amongst luxurious German machines for the 1000km trip from Johannesburg to the great Eastern Cape place called Qunu.

Looking strong and fiftyish, Sis Thembi giggles in a manner that reflects a palpable elated memory of the Chilean fellow.

“The world is not running short of good people,” she says. I let her be and escape without much detail.

Sis Thembi has also seen and survived the constant vagaries of ferrying strangers around in the dead of the night. This can be a bad place. “We’ve seen people (taxi drivers) disappearing after picking up a client just like that and never to be found again,” she says shaking her head in grief. “I have no reason to fear anymore,” said Sis Thembi. But then she is seeking succour from Uber.

Sis Thembi would kill for the Uber gig. That much was clear from the conversation I had with the first female ‘metre taxi’ driver I’ve encountered in this life time. She is part of a growing South African arm of a global operation that is emerging to disturb the business of moving people. Many are crying foul. There will be blood on the floor.

I call Sis Thembi ‘metre taxi driver’ for clarity sake. She is actually an Uber owner/driver. Uber, the globalising firm which has developed an online software that connects drivers and riders, vehemently refuses to be titled as a metre taxi. Uber insists that it is a facilitator of an informal lift service. But this is a $40 billion business which started in San Francisco to become a global phenomenon. It is one of those new generation business operations in the mould of your Facebook and Google type operations.

I hailed Sis Thembi via a smart phone application from my workplace in Rivonia, Sandton. A tap on the Uber App calls up a map and the location of the next available car in the Uber fleet. The App tells me a car is five minutes away. It gives me three options: the budget ride called uberX, the luxury option uberBlack and something called uberVan. I tap on uberX which yields a picture of Sis Thembi, the make of her car (a Toyota Corolla) and car plate numbers. It also gives me an estimated price for my trip. All it means is that Big Brother will be watching me while I ride with Sis Thembi.

In the absence of Uber, I’m quite sure that I could have looked for other alternatives, other than metre taxi, to move from work in Sandton to home in Cresta, Windsor East. My usual biking exercise had on this day been disturbed by rain. In the absence of Uber, I would not have considered its equivalent, the normal metre taxi, due to the price factor. I’m quite sure that a normal metre taxi would have charged me about R250.00 for the Sandton to Cresta trip. Uber charged me R134.00.

My other alternative would have been the mini bus taxi which can be cumbersome. For a mini bust taxi, I would have wait for a taxi to pick me up in Rivonia Street and drop me off at the Sandton Taxi Rank for about R10.00. From then I would take a taxi to Ranburg Taxi Rank for about R15. From Ranburg, I would take another taxi towards Cresta for about R13.00. A trip that took 29 minutes by Uber would have lasted for about 3 hours in the mini bus option.

I’ve had my reservations about Uber. They are mainly informed by a concern of breeding a global giant at the expense of the local small enterprise. Uber has growing into a multibillion dollar behemoth whilst displacing the small scale trader who has occupied the metre taxi space for ages. Cries and protests of traditional metre taxi operators against Uber can be heard across the globe from Paris to Tokyo. Authorities are disorientated too about how to regulate a metre taxi service that refuses to call itself a metre taxi. Uber has caused a regulatory vacuum that is causing major tension in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban.

Sis Thembi punches holes onto my theory in the most elegant way.  When I point out to her that there are parties which feel robbed by Uber’s emergence, she adds that these people are defending a strange right, the right to screw others. By others she means both the customer and the owner/driver. The 20% I’m paying Uber is nothing when compared to the amounts I’ve parted with to the old metre taxi networks, said Sis Thembi.

A visibly irritated Sis Thembi adds “Who are these people you are talking about? What gives them a right to own this market? Are they gods? Do they own you and your right to choose a service? I was headed south when you hailed me. I picked you up in office. What is the problem here.”

Sis’ Thembi tells me that she is very happy to be part of this global network. Uber, she says, is the greatest thing to have happened to me and to the country. Business is good. I’m happy to give Uber 20% of my earnings. I’ve been in this business for ever and I’ve seen how difficult life is outside Uber.  – Ujuh


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