‘We are just hanging in there’ – the frustration of Uber and Bolt drivers in South Africa
With excessive petrol prices and stubbornly low trip fares, many of South Africa’s ride-sharing drivers say that instead of independent, flexible entrepreneurs, they feel like they are treated like underpaid employees without benefits and with little space for negotiation.
International tech companies Uber and Bolt, have a combined 60,000 drivers in South Africa each making dozens of trips daily. Drivers are struggling to make ends meet despite working 12-hour days, six or seven days a week. They pay a large commission (25% of the price of every Uber trip goes to the app company, while Bolt takes 23%) while ride-hailing companies keep fares low to keep customers happy. Especially for the many drivers who pay about R2,000 a week to vehicle owners while carrying the burden of a sky-high petrol price, working in the ride-hailing business is a precarious existence.
Drivers are eager to increase their earnings and improve conditions. Though efforts to build collective power are under way, organising drivers who work independently to demand changes from companies that drivers say are reluctant to prioritise drivers’ interests, is an uphill battle.
A disclaimer from Kagiso Khaole, head of mobility operations for Uber sub-Saharan Africa, sent to Maverick Citizen reads: “Please note that drivers operate as independent contractors, so please refrain from using terms such as ‘work for Uber’ and referencing drivers as ‘Uber drivers’ or ‘Our drivers’, and rather use ‘drivers on the Uber platform’ or ‘drivers that use the Uber app’.”
Drivers refer to themselves as Uber drivers.
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“I feel like an employee. I have been here for six years, I deserve some benefits,” said driver Arthur Khumalo, who also works as a security guard.
The experience for many drivers is that their terms of work are dictated by Uber, much like an employer.
This is echoed by a 2021 Fairwork report on the gig economy in South Africa: “Objectively, on most platforms, workers are under the platforms’ control and deliver their brand just like employees.” In 2021, Uber drivers in the UK successfully were reclassified as “workers” who could receive a minimum wage, holiday pay and pension plans. “In South Africa, Uber drivers who tried to do so were unable even to have their claims heard,” According to the Fairwork report.
Fairwork rates Uber 4/10 and Bolt 1/10 on its scoring system.
“Uber calls us driver partners, but when they make decisions, we’re not involved,” explained Dumisani Sibanyoni (40) as he tracked his trip on the Uber app and steered his Toyota Corolla through Monday-morning traffic in Johannesburg.
The former photographer said: “I’ve found myself driving full-time but I really regret it. I’m trying to actually leave this platform. It’s bad, it’s toxic.”
Siyabanyoni says he feels stuck in an unfair system that has him working harder but earning less than when he started with Uber four years ago. He can’t leave yet because he has to pay instalments on his vehicle and work elsewhere is difficult to find.
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In 2021, after three years of earning what he says was at least a liveable income as a driver for the standard UberX service, he says: “My car was downgraded to UberGo because it’s a 2014 model.”
According to Uber’s website, UberGo was introduced across South Africa as an affordable option with smaller, fuel-efficient cars. But Sibanyoni says Uber didn’t have enough cars that fit neatly into the category, so without consulting him they downgraded vehicles like his to a service that underpays.
On an average local trip of 10km, drivers earn about R30 less with UberGo than they did with UberX. For a full-time driver who makes about 20 trips a day, this translates into thousands of rands less in income every month.
“Now I’m earning less. Basically now it’s hand to mouth,” says Sibanyoni.
Though drivers are earning less, Uber is making more. While figures aren’t available on a country level, in the second quarter of 2022, in Africa, the Middle East and Europe combined, Uber made $1.8-billion in revenue, a large increase from the $929-million it made in the same quarter in 2021.
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Though earnings vary significantly for drivers, a 2021 study, carried out just before Uber introduced UberGo, found that most Uber drivers in Johannesburg had a monthly take-home income of R5,000 and R7,500.
In the same period that Sibanyoni and many other drivers have had their incomes cut by Uber’s choice to introduce UberGo, their expenses have risen significantly as petrol prices increased by R10 per litre in the past year and a half.
Fuel prices have almost doubled since Sibanyoni transported his first client with Uber in 2018.
In correspondence with Maverick Citizen, Uber’s Khaole said the drop in earnings was due to measures taken to contain the Covid pandemic. “This year, however, we have seen driver earnings begin to recover in South Africa.
“The main thing is that [Uber] doesn’t raise the price. Once fuel is up everything’s going up, but Uber fares don’t go up. We end up not seeing what we are working for,” said Maureen Mndaweni, an Uber driver who has transported passengers around Johannesburg’s northern and eastern suburbs for the past seven years. She spoke to Maverick Citizen during a fundraising event for South African Women in E-hailing on 9 August 2022.
At the same event, Sibusisiwe Simangele said: “We are just hanging in there… I work for petrol and renting my car. I am failing to pay my expenses.”
Simangele says that because of petrol price hikes and Uber’s low trip costs, she is struggling to pay her three children’s school fees and recently had to go to court because she couldn’t make her bond payments.
After drivers went on strike in March 2022, Uber says it increased prices.
“We have implemented three fare increases this year alone, with the latest implemented this past July. We recognise the pressure drivers are under to keep their businesses profitable, especially with the increasing fuel prices,” Khaole said.
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However, these fare increases are negligible, as far as most drivers are concerned.
“How many times has petrol gone up but the prices remain the same?” asked Thokozani Nkomo (38), a former waiter and now Uber driver in Johannesburg.
The fare pricing and petrol predicament are intolerable for many drivers. Nkosinathi Zwane, spokesperson for the Gauteng e-Hailing Partners Council, a representative body elected by ride-hailing drivers that negotiates on their behalf said: “If [e-hailing apps] maintain this pricing that they are currently charging, we are left with no choice but to withdraw our services… Drivers are no longer making money in this industry.”
When Uber first came to South Africa in 2013, it encouraged drivers to join with subsidies and a lower commission of 20%. By 2015, once thousands of drivers had joined and Uber was becoming a feature of South African urban life, it could comfortably increase their commission to 25%.
“In South Africa, we have a standard service fee of 25%. This service fee was decided upon after careful consideration of the cost associated with running the Uber app, which comes out of Uber’s service fee from each fare. The service fee helps us maintain and make continuous investments to enhance our technology designed to meet the needs of riders and drivers, so Uber can be the first choice for both,” according to Khaole.
But the commission is an urgent matter for drivers.
“They should reduce this percentage, that 25%,” urged Solomon Masala (37), a Gauteng-based driver who has been with Uber for the past five years.
“You’d lure the drivers in with subsidies, and over time you cut back on that,” an anonymous former Uber executive told the Washington Post in the aftermath of the leak of the Uber Files.
Khaole told Maverick Citizen: “When we started in South Africa, we offered incentives and referrals for drivers to join the platform, as is common for any business investing in growth. As the market has matured, we have adjusted these incentives accordingly.”
The Uber Files, 124,000 documents leaked to The Guardian earlier in 2022, show how Uber broke laws and secretly lobbied officials around the world. In South Africa, it took advantage of the high unemployment rate and then exploited drivers by cutting back earnings and knowingly placing them in danger by introducing cash payments.
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There is a real risk of hijacking and being attacked as a ride-hailing driver. Drivers say they keep safe by avoiding areas they consider dangerous. South Africa’s conflict between metered-taxi drivers and Uber drivers has been especially violent.
Nevertheless, many drivers told Maverick Citizen they feel much safer with Uber than with its main e-hailing competitor in South Africa, Bolt. “Uber, I give them a thumbs up when it comes to safety. I don’t do Bolt,” said Masala.
Though Bolt’s website says it has a range of safety features such as an SOS button and insurance, Nkosinathi Zwane of the Gauteng E-Hailing Partners Council echoed drivers’ concerns about Bolt’s safety. He said drivers and riders are more easily traceable after incidents through Uber’s facial verification and tracing through banking information. “Bolt has refused to do those things,” he said.
Bolt did not respond to requests for comment.
Phumzile Khumalo (48) drives with Bolt. When her husband, an accountant, was admitted to hospital in 2020 for a brain tumour, she started making deliveries for Mr D and moved to Bolt in December 2021.
“It’s scary… looking at the high risk of hijackings. As a woman, I just surrender myself to God to say, ‘you will take care of me’. I have to do this because I’ve got no other way of income since my husband is sick. I’m the one who is fending for the family. I do it at my own risk,” she said.
Bolt takes a commission of 23%.
“With the commission they are taking, it makes me feel like they have employed me. But at the end of the day, they don’t take care of my pension, they don’t take care of the service of my car. It makes me feel like I’m employed with a company that doesn’t pay benefits,” said Khumalo.
Drivers also feel they are consistently deprioritised.
“They don’t think of me, they think of themselves and the client,” said Fanuel Sal Mhlanga, an Uber driver and father of two who also does odd jobs like painting on top of driving full-time. Prices are kept low to retain riders and many drivers said riding-sharing companies too easily block them from the apps owing to minor or baseless complaints from riders.
Uber’s offers of flexible entrepreneurship for independent contractors on the platform is a world away from the reality for Uber drivers, especially those who do not own their cars.
Driver Solomon Masala pays R2,500 a week to a vehicle owner who rents out the car to him. “At some point you have difficulties, it’s the fuel, it’s the pricing, it’s the boss – the owner of the cars. They don’t relate to what we do, because normally the boss doesn’t know what’s going on in the field.”
About half of the 12 drivers who spoke to Maverick Citizen do not own their vehicles, though Masala pays more than average in rent, with most saying they pay R2,000 a week. A 2021 study of ride-hailing drivers in Johannesburg found that close to 60% of drivers don’t own their cars. They lack the starting capital to make an initial deposit on a car, but over months and years end up paying for much more than the car would otherwise cost.
Uber and Bolt’s drivers urgently want their situation to change. But in the context of South Africa’s 34,5% unemployment rate, they say fighting for change in their industry is challenging.
“[Uber] has got that kind of attitude of saying, ‘if you don’t want it, leave it, someone is gonna come and fill up this space,” said Nkomo.
Another driver, Sibanyoni, said: “This system is designed in such a way that even if you want to unite, we are scattered.”
On 8 August, drivers in Gauteng planned a stayaway to pressure Bolt and Uber into listening to their complaints about the high commission and low fares. It was called off after the companies agreed to meet drivers and driver representatives later in the month. DM/MC
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.