Chilling message to Uber from South African taxi driver has global echo

Uber is not welcomed here. Not in Italy… We don’t know where they pay their taxes. We hear that they pay their taxes in the Camen Islands. They must do business where they pay their taxes.

Sibonelo Radebe

The meter taxi owner/driver we encountered on the day we made our way from Johannesburg to Paris, and then to Venice, Padova and Florence made it clear that more blood is to be shed in the South African chapter of globalised battles against Uber.

This is after violent protest against Uber, carried out by traditional metre taxi drivers, escalated in Johannesburg and Pretoria. On the 17th of June, an Uber driver, Lindelani Mashau, was petrol bombed in Pretoria. He succumbed to his wounds a month later.

We encountered equally considerable resentment against Uber on the other side of the Mediterranean Sea. It got us thinking. We underestimate the sea change sweeping through the world economy. The impact of movements like Uber is fundamentally deep. It must be compared to the unrooting of feudalistic merchants and tradesman.

That is the reality of the South African cab owner/driver operating a powerful German machine. He’s a fairly educated man who left a professional vocation and invested his life savings into the metre taxi industry. His fortunes have declined significantly over the past few years. He’s now come face to face with bankruptcy.

It’s driving him crazy. He blames Uber.

He was stern in sending a spine chilling message directed at Uber and what he calls Uber allieas, the public authorities and the media. Be warned, he said, this is a matter of life and death. “We are prepared to raise hell to defend our livelihood.”

It echoes cries heard some 200 years ago when capitalism was shaping up displacing masses of tradesman and ruining many a life before delivering to us the benefits of the modern economy.

And so we left South Africa with an element of dejection, where the so-called new economy is concerned.

Our attempt to make the cab driver appreciate the free market principle failed dismally. He defeated us with a remark that a market where one player is made to run in chains and the other is allowed to use artificial propellers is not free. Our retort that the violent protest he was threatening won’t solve anything but bring trouble, jail even, to himself was met with: “We are already fucked.”

On landing at the Marco Polo Airport in Venice, we took it for granted that Italy, being a developed economy, would be teeming with Uber taxis. We were wrong.

The Uber app yielded a message along the lines of: We are sorry Uber is not yet available in your area.

How could this be?

We asked the cab driver who took us from the airport to Padova to clarify the anomaly.

His response was short and sharp. “Uber is not welcomed here. Not in Italy! It is illegal here.”

He fired on saying: “We don’t know where they pay their taxes. We hear that they pay their taxes in the Camen Islands. They must do business where they pay their taxes.”

The Italian taxi driver was somewhat economical with the truth. Uber does operate in big Italian cities like Rome amidst serious challenges as a result of battles waged by traditional meter taxi operators. Complaining that Uber was benefitting from unfair competition metre taxi drivers in Rome secured a nationwide Uber ban in April this year. That ban was overturned in May.

The following day, we got more or less the same response from the cab driver who took us from the Florence train station to a fashion brands outlet, The Mall. We encountered the resentment in Paris.

But the Parisian chapter is somewhat interesting. We met Ben (not his real name), a Ghanaian born metre taxi driver who took us from a Parisian suburb, Croussy, to Charles de Gaulle Airport. He came in an elegant black suit, white shirt laced by a bright red tie. You would swear he is a corporate executive. He is executive in his own way.

Cruising with the latest Renault Espace, Ben’s look forms part of a fight back by a network of metre taxis called G7. “We’ve had to professionalise our operation and improve the quality of our service in order to push Uber back,” says Ben.

“It’s working,” he says and partly attributes the successful fight back to a fundamental.

“In a way, we are lucky to be operating in an advanced economy like France. Here a low price is not enough to win customers. Quality of service is a critical factor of business success. We are beating Uber on the quality of service”

Ben comes with a personalised professional touch. He was called in by our host who keeps him on speed dial. The two have developed a close relationship that leads to repeat business, a factor which an Uber driver can never master because of the random selection in dispatching drivers.

It was no accident that we hop into Ben’s car to find him playing the great Burning Spear song Queen of the Mountains, the Live in Paris version. He knew that I regard this song as the one of the best melodies all time.

Ben is good like that. And that’s why I took his number too. I’ll call him the next time I land in Paris despite the fact that Uber is way cheaper than him. I’ve had really bad expriences with French Uber drivers when I play my parlez vous anglais tune.

news@ujuh.co.za

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