On an average day outside Johannesburg’s downtown train station, a handful of men in all-black military gear are positioned down the block. They wear bulletproof vests, combat boots and wool beanies. A patch on their sleeves reads, “Hi-Risk Security Company, Rapid Response Unit.”
As we exited the train station during a trip to South Africa last month, one of the men approached us. “Are you looking for an Uber?”
Meet the private security force working for the ride-hailing company in Johannesburg.
“On this corner, you are perfectly safe,” the guard told us.
We had only his word for it because clashes between Uber and local taxi drivers, known as “metered taxis,” are now a common occurrence in Johannesburg and surrounding cities. To put it bluntly, being an Uber driver here is dangerous.
In the last year, the violence has included reports of Uber drivers being beaten as they drop off passengers at busy areas with taxi stands, like train stations. One Uber driver, whose car was set on fire after an attack in June, died two weeks ago from severe burns.
“There is no excuse for the violent acts described,” Uber wrote in a June 12 blog post after the attack. “We know that these actions do not represent the entire industry, however, this violence and intimidation against those who choose to use the Uber app must stop.”
Turmoil between taxi and Uber drivers isn’t isolated to South Africa. Protests, beatings and attacks have been reported in New York, London, Paris and Mexico City because taxi drivers are upset that Uber, one of the world’s largest ride-hailing services with operations in 76 countries, is taking their customers. Incidents have also reportedly occurred across the African continent — from Egypt to Kenya to Nigeria. But the problem appears to be worth it for Uber. Africa has a booming population of more than 1.2 billion, all potential customers.
“Nations like India, China and the whole African region are potentially ripe for this type of mobility,” said Susan Shaheen, co-director of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, “given the population density, given the infrastructure and given access to smartphone technology.”
Uber didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment on this story.
“Bricks, knives, whatever”
Driving for Uber in South Africa can be lethal.
David Bhili, 42, is a full-time Uber driver in Johannesburg and said the job…