21st Century Luddites? : What’s behind the metered taxi industry’s gripe with Uber?

DSC_0122
Abe

My Sunday school teacher would’ve thought we have indeed arrived in the ‘final days’. She might still think so. Who would’ve thought that South Africa would witness ‘mass action’ against a tech company run by geeks in Sillicon Valley? Ofcourse the worker on the receiving end of the political wrath would not answer to a San Francisco address, but be found in the wrong Sandton sideway at the wrong time. It reminded me of the Luddites. The Luddites were a group of 19th century English textile workers who, scared at the prospect of losing their jobs to machines and technological advances, staged violent protests. These protests often included the burning of power looms and stocking frames, ‘innovative’ and labour-saving machinery of the time.

 

The reason I was reminded of the Luddites, was the picture of a concrete block shattering the windscreen of a 2013 Toyota Corolla, the kind all uber-cool Braam types know belongs to Uber drivers. My first perspective when the first skirmishes between Uber drivers and meter taxi drivers occurred last year, was that the meter taxi drivers were Luddites who were just protecting their turf.

This attitude was prompted by many rides in 1993 model Toyota Corollas with no heater in the middle of winter, after a night out. There was also the price determination issue, I just felt that prices were set at a whim, with the service relationship often bordering on what Mbuyiseni Ndlozi calls ‘ageism’. Enter Uber, with cheap tariffs, newer vehicles and the convenience of requesting a trip at your convenience. To top it off, you could get a fare estimate, which gave you a sense of how much the trip would cost. Surely such innovation, which matches convenience with low prices, was an example that technology was a great leveller. More importantly, Uber drivers were ‘partner-drivers’ which meant that they in effect ran small businesses that deployed technology, at a cost of 20% of trip value, but that could be made up in volume right? Not really

The Uber model is part of a series of innovations that deploy mobile applications to pair service or product providers with customers. In other words, the app links workers with work. This simple model is part of something called the sharing economy or ‘peer economy’, which is based on the idea that technology can facilitate access to a product or service, without the need for ownership. However as Avi Asher-Schapiro argues, there is much to the sharing economy model, that is similar to the ABI Driver Empowerment Programme discussed in Casualties of Cola;

Uber is part of a new wave of corporations that make up what’s called the “sharing economy.” The premise is seductive in its simplicity: people have skills, and customers want services. Silicon Valley plays matchmaker, churning out apps that pair workers with work. But under the guise of innovation and progress, companies are stripping away worker protections, pushing down wages, and flouting government regulations

Surely these words, I thought, may have been the musings of a fellow leftist Luddite based in America, and the views of South Africans would be different. More importantly, I would seek out some of the meter taxi operators, who are enraged by the invasion of their turf by a techie mafikizolo. I spoke to three meter taxi operators in the West of Johannesburg, whose views centered on three issues they felt had led to the desperation that manifest in violence last week.  Two related issues that the metered taxi industry argue provide an unfair advantage to Uber are the issue of regulatory avoidance and uncompetitive price behaviour. I also argue that the latter is only possible through the prevalence of what Asher-Schapiro mentions above; stripping away worker protections, pushing down wages, and Herculean working hours.

Regulatory Avoidance

If there is anything that this furore has exposed, is how the authorities charged with regulation of the meter taxi industry were found flat-footed by the ‘sharing economy’. Many of the drivers I spoke to sighted the hurdles they had to overcome to get ‘permits’, which they allege many Uber drivers didn’t possess. Some of these hurdles involved having a set point where you pick up customers, and where you would ‘bind’ in taxi terms. Uber drivers didn’t have such hurdles, and would often pick up customers in the proximity of their latest drop-off. This is not possible for the meter taxi drivers, largely due to the strictly policed rules of where one can work and ‘routes’, similar to the minibus taxi industry. A driver named Brown posed the question of preferential treatment given to the tech driven service;

‘As a prerequisite whenever you go and apply for a permit there, you need to have your starting point. Uber doesn’t have a starting point. Our people cannot get permits there because they do not have a starting point, but why is Uber then getting the permit?’

DSC_0103
Brown

 

Uncompetitive Price Behaviour

It is clear that the claim that Uber receive preferential treatment is not only confined to regulatory criteria related to ‘routes’ and areas of operation. It also extends to the pricing and rates the meter taxi drivers suggest is the regulated rate which is R12.50/km, whereas Uber was operating at much lower and often variable rates. In July 2015 the Gauteng government urged the Uber taxi drivers to secure meter taxi licences, and by extension subject themselves to the regulations associated with that licence. Which would probably mean a rise in their current R6/km and 60c a minute offering?

Labour Issues

How does Uber, after taking its 20% cut, still manage to undercut meter taxis? Simple, just like you access your service, they access their ‘cut’, without ownership of the underlying resource driving the business; the vehicle. Just like Amazon doesn’t own an auction floor, or AirBnB doesn’t own any bed, it’s the sharing economy fam. Ownership costs and associated insurance and maintenance of the car is simply the onus of the ‘partner-driver’. And, in this partnership, the partner with the technology gets to have significant bargaining power; they can deactivate a ‘partner-driver’ on the basis of poor performance. Surely this is the ‘perfect’ functioning of a competitive system based on performance. Not at all. Not if that performance in order to settle the instalment, insurance premium, petrol and tyres, eats into the surplus the ‘partner-drivers’ expect. It is even worse in instances where the ‘driver’ is not the ‘partner-driver’, as is often the case. Where the owner of the car employs a driver to run the business, this often means a smaller cut for the ‘labourer’ of the remaining 80%. In these instances, what Asher-Schapiro says is interesting;

‘….under the guise of innovation and progress, companies are stripping away worker protections, pushing down wages, and flouting government regulations. At its core, the sharing economy is a scheme to shift risk from companies to workers, discourage labour organizing, and ensure that capitalists can reap huge profits with low fixed costs. There’s nothing innovative or new about this business model. Uber is just capitalism, in its most naked form’

It is interesting because this view contrasts the convenience narrative and ‘innovation’ associated with Uber in the telling of the events that occurred in Sandton last week. If we are to innovate it must surely also be towards the social ends, which in South Africa involve the eradication of exploitation and economic injustice. It is not that the meter taxi drivers do not want technology, or are 21st century Luddites. It is that they want technology, and wish that the democratic state they have placed their faith in, would level the playing field. Level it by providing them with the technology, not just by regulating Uber as Brown noted;

‘They (government) need to help us, more especially with the technology that Uber is using. We need that technology. The technology is 100%, we want it. Now the government should come in and assist our people’

Resistance to the sharing economy’s invasion or what Brown called ‘the capture of our industry’ is not a phenomenon isolated to South Africa. It is also present across Europe and the United States and other places. In South Africa it takes on a character befitting the drama of our post-Apartheid society. Replete with the fire and brimstone of everyday struggles, the contest between Uber and the meter taxi industry is far from over. The words of meter taxi driver known as Bin Laden are as defiant as the exploits of his namesake;

They are just using our people for mahala, they make us fight among ourselves…..this is the colonial economy and we don’t want it’

DSC_0112
Bin Laden

 

Just as I had been reminded of the Luddites, I remembered what my first year Information Systems lecture, meekly defined as the ‘digital divide’. Little did I know then, how divisive it can potentially be. Uber might be useful for the cheap rides and that lesson.

The Working People

We are the children of workers
Handlers of machines
Drillers of rock
Mantshing’ilane of conveyer belts
Merchants in life, restoration and death
Bush mechanics, peddling vendors and drunken pastors
Are workers?
As much as those who hold
The wealth of the world in their hands
For a minute
Before its allure and hierarchy evades their grasp and the emptiness of their stomachs
We are the children of workers
Who raised the children of others
But never their own
We are workers ourselves
Albeit
Well trained ones; sophisticated hobos
Two pay cheques away from the bread lines

DSC_0983
A lion is a lion
In a zoo or in the wild
It matters not
If we clean corridors or turn tricks
Sell stocks or paint apartment blocks
Suits or overalls
The collar is the same when you tie it up
Shop-floor metal creations to be driven before your eyes, never by the hands that made them
The stuff that never makes the well-lit and brilliantly shot car ads
And 60 installments later, ngowuyithathe nge-‘lay buy’ mzala!
The cost is never the same when you count it up
Whilst
Physical or mental
The control is the same when you pair it up
We are workers
At least most of us…….

The Peasants’ Revolt 2.0: Will we listen this time?

Revolt
The Mpondoland Revolt 

The recent death of Amadiba Crisis Committee Chair Bazooka Radebe has rightfully achieved attention the world over. Beneath the many resigned and solemn messages of condolences to the Radebe family and solidarity to the Amadiba Crisis Committee, came a sobering reminder; money often matters more than human life. Rumours and speculation abound as to who would’ve placed a bounty on Bazooka’s head. Was his death the outcome of taxi rivalry, or the machinations of the interests behind the proposed mining of titanium on the Wild Coast? Only time and the wheels of justice will tell. What Bazooka’s death reminds us of are two related issues. Firstly, that the notion of ‘public participation’ and ‘prior consent’ of communities in mining affected areas often has very little scope for dissenting views. Where such dissent emerges it is seen as unreasonable and counter the development efforts of the community. This is not surprising in a country built on violent extraction of people and natural resources for profit. Secondly once the ‘mining is the sine qua non for development’ is challenged and alternatives presented, the contest of ideas around how ‘development’ should be pursued is often deadly. These two issues read alongside each other, present interesting insights about how mining interests across the continent, often have little disregard for human life and the land on which such life is lived. No community knows this better than the people of the Wild Coast of the former Transkei. The area is littered with a rich political history, much similar to that of many resistant communities in the peasantry across South Africa. Govan Mbeki in his book Peasants Revolt notes this rich history;

‘South African peasants have a long history of resistance to oppression. They know what it is to be crushed by the armed forces of the Whites, to be imprisoned without trial, banished to desolate parts of the country, and banned from normal social contact…….Since the enforcement of the Nationalist Party`s policies by harsh and frequently violent means, peasant resistance has been widespread and organized. Africans have resisted forcible removal from their homes to new territory. They have opposed the imposition of Bantu Authorities, the extension of passes to women, and schemes for the rehabilitation and reallocation of land’

wild coast

Many of those involved in the resistance of the Amadiba Crisis Committee to the planned mining of their ancestral land, are descendants of many heroes and heroines who were involved in the Mpondoland Revolt, not too far from where Bazooka was killed last week. The revolt was an important setback to the Tribal Authorities that the National Party government wished to impose on the people. The Mpondoland Revolt was one of the most successful, albeit heavily punished, acts of defiance by the African people in the history of the liberation movement. Ikonga or the ‘Mountain Movement’ as it was referred to, had the ability to not only organise the African peasantry behind a political programme aimed at ousting imposed authorities, but was also instrumental in catalyzing the peasantry to ‘reimagine’ alternative ways of governing themselves and relations among each other. Govan Mbeki highlights the emergence of this form of ‘people’s power’;

‘As area after area came under the influence of the movement, informal peoples’ courts arose, and they administered a popular justice as a promise of the democratic way of life that the peasants would one day have……….the setting up of these peoples’ courts probably did more than anything else to show the peasants what a difference it would make to run their own machinery of administration in keeping with the democratic goals that they had set for themselves’

This experience of extensive repression alongside growing consciousness and self-reliance is an important heritage that the people of Mbizana and the Wild Coast generally have bequeathed to our people. The life of Bazooka is a contemporary reminder of this. It is therefore not surprising that the area of Mbizana is also the home to two of the most prominent leaders of the liberation movement ; Oliver Tambo and Nomzamo Madikizela-Mandela. This area has also been victim to some of the crudest displays of governance paralysis and corruption. There are many anecdotal accounts, often alleging that the land on which many holiday homes of the affluent, in places like Mbizana, Mzamba, Morgan Bay, Haga Haga among others, were bought for the price of brandy or whisky from the Transkei elite. Some of the most pristine land and coastline in Africa was sold, we are told, for an inebriating pittance, never to return. Capital has never been afraid to co-opt elements of the African peasantry to pursue its aims often through force, religion, money and in many instances alcohol. A sobering realisation, reminding us of the words of the great Xhosa poet Krune Mqhayi;

Hay’ kodw’ iBritan’ iNkulu – Yeza nebhotile neBhayibhile; Yeza nomfundis’ exhag’ ijoni; Yeza nerhuluwa nesinandile; Yeza nenkanunu nemfakadolo. Tarhu, Bawo, sive yiphi na?
(Despite your claim to greatness, Great Britain – You came with a liquor bottle in the one hand and a Bible in the other; You came with a preacher in the embrace of a soldier; You came with gunpowder and bullets; You came with cannons and rapid-fire rifles. Dear Father, to what shall we listen?)

Therefore when the Amadiba Crisis Committee was formed in the early 2000s, in response to overtures by Australian mining interests to mine their ancestral land, it was largely from an informed historic perspective and an understanding that their claim to themselves and their being was closely related to how much they were willing to fight for their birthright. What we can discern from the history of Mbizana, its present and the recent death of Bazooka Radebe, is that, in addition to the historic importance of resistance is a realisation that the state and the democratic order may not be as strong a safeguard to the vulnerability of the community to dispossession. More importantly, the comrades of the Amadiba Crisis Committee have developed a steely resolve which as Mbeki wrote more than 70 years ago, in a different context, is often an outcome of great loss;
‘….the people do not bear sufferings, such as they bore when the army occupied the Transkei, without becoming steeled in their determination to regroup, re-examine their methods of struggle, develop new ones, and retain the spirit that seeks forever for freedom’

pondo-dances

The struggle continues in Xolobeni, the Amadiba Crisis Committee as one of its leaders Nonhle Mbutuma indicated earlier on this week; ‘We’re going to continue forward, no matter if we lose some soldiers on the way’. The unfolding events present important cases in the South African context, of a collision between liberal western notions of rural and social ‘development’ based on extraction, accumulation and non-satiation confronting the articulation of alternatives from below. That such alternatives from below need to be coerced and intimidated into silence through the threat or actual use of the lethal force of arms is telling but not surprising. It is also a collision between different ideas of what the ‘land’ means or should mean, a discussion which has at its centre the need to reclaim the sociological importance of land to the African peasantry. As social theorist Archie Mafeje observed;

‘Collective land rights in sub-Saharan Africa are jealously guarded by solidary landholding groups, and any socially unsanctioned transfer inevitably leads to conflict, if not actual violence. This is one of the basic principles that eludes free-marketeers. and government land reformers’

We must ask, is the prospecting for resources and the operating of a mine, a ‘socially sanctioned’ transfer of land by the people to the MRC? If so, why are poor African peasants willing to lay down their lives to prevent the start of drilling, as we saw prior to Radebe’s death? More importantly, why should the people of the Wild Coast place hope in mining, when for centuries it has broken their familial and social fabric through migrancy and other means? With many of their kith and kin leaving to return in body bags, as was the case after Marikana; why then would mining under their noses be any different? The social (human and environmental) cost of mining the Wild Coast, for the Amadiba community far outweighs the envisaged ‘benefits’. As Nonhle Mbutuma, paraphrasing the words of her late grandfather (a veteran of the Mpondoland revolt), reminds us;
“He told me to never let go of our land that it would sustain us for much longer than money….. He said that once we lost our land it would be gone forever’’

It is a realisation borne of experience, defiance and unending resistance, and these are lessons which for the people of Mbizana, which hold true beyond the two decade shelf-life of an Australian-financed, mine. Is anyone willing to listen?

The Sinner’s Benediction

On a wing and a prayer Our kith and kin 

Request that we place them 

‘Emthandazweni’

Not only on Sunday 

But as per expectation

Every day, next to our beds, knees on the floor 

So we may one day be placed by the 

society of professional mourners 

among the ants and maggots

In the place reserved as Sipamla said, for Methodist Xhosas
That we pray for the health of those whose breath lies at a cliff edge

Is little comfort when 

Our requests are the last belaying ropes

To abseil down the cliff of broken hopes 
place in our thoughts, receiver of our prayers

The transactions that have partially bought the souls of those who negotiate with umtyholi for crimes committed and unacknowledged
For those who look away 

In the cemented solidarity of prison 

We say a prayer 
Under our breath before the allure of sleep takes us to restless dreams of those we knew and are about to know 
If we dream that is, as often the lingering numbness of cannabis smothers the dreams before they scream as loud as the brother who reached for the soap long after he dropped the dream in a fatherless Mjondolo and found it’s replacement in a brother-filled corner. Distorted and remixed with the sounds of huis braak and laced with the blood of the first victim.the last innocence. 

‘They said the blood looks like tomato sauce, and not like the thick and flat Coca Cola I saw’ 
She wishes my well intentioned prayers were a harness before she drowned in the depths of a deep throated climax that started with the unimaginable ; an unexpected kiss and touch on those inexperienced thighs 

cream leather the seat of her power as she reigned in one of the many kingdoms promised 

We pray for her too
Before we pray for our pain 

The subordination of self 

Even in the requests to the maker reminds us 

Of others made before

As a constant work in progress 

We pray for better love, sex, pay and happiness 

And a place in gold lined heaven 

When the accident of birth positions you as Satan’s accomplice on earth 

Praying for heaven is a thankless vocation when the starched uniforms of hierarchy do little to feed the mouths of your children beyond 

Seven colours of hunger 
I pray to unlearn 

And seize the artists brush 

Before she paints me as a flirtatious, angry and horny monster chasing the bounty that comes with her heart, pants or pocket

I pray 

For the strength to fight the demons and hurt which incrementally chip at the granite quarry that now resembles my heart’s desire 

I wake up from a subsuming sleep

And with heavy eyelids 

Realise 

My knees hurt

Azania live letfu

 

sihle
Sihle Nxumalo *

 

When Penny Sparrow uttered her disparaging comments about black people on the social media platform , Twitter, there was an immediate uproar from the black community. This backlash was in my opinion not only justified, it was necessary. White people post 1994 continue to be complacent and racist (amongst other things), and honestly it was about time that black people displayed their dissatisfaction at constantly being at the receiving end of racist commentary.

Upon closer inspection of the violent interaction between the two camps however, I was rather dismayed at what I deemed to be the origin and reason for black people’s anger. It seemed that the bulk of the marred race was angry at being compared to monkeys and not at the article as a whole which covertly limits black people’s right to certain spaces.

Personally I have very little problem with being referred to as a monkey. When one is exposed to the discipline of palaeoanthropology ones gets a greater understanding of how the slow process of evolution and the phenomenon of speciation occur. Moreover one comes to comprehend how race is not a biological occurrence but if anything a social construct which is simply to say that on the biological basis black people are no closer to being monkeys than are white people. It then becomes a laughing matter that a grown woman would display such a poor understanding of the idea of humanity’s evolution which I’m sure most of us have come across at some time or other.

King Kong

Essentially to reduce blackness to sub-human by comparing revelling beach goers to animals is a pedagogy of bestiality and is typical of racists. For have we not been labelled monkeys, coons and wild beasts (without a shred of empirical evidence to back up these claims visible anywhere) since time immemorial? It is a poor and unimaginative attempt at delegitimizing black people’s right to humanity so as to effectively ensconce white supremacy on the pedestal on which it still sits. Dr Rozeena Maart uses the analogy of King Kong to highlight the irrationality of white thought concerning bestiality:

the big ape who cannot be controlled, whose savagery reminds us and him that one can expose him to all that is humanely possible- even freedom, a constitution for his own redemption and yet, in his pursuit of being human was chastised, reprimanded, mocked, warned, threatened and forced to the brink of extinction because he could not overcome his ape hood.

I for one am immune to such tactics. This is not to make light of the matter but simply to highlight that such salient tactics are worn out and only seek to deter black people from picking up on the more clandestine and more destructive manifestations of racism. Let me elaborate.

Thus the question then becomes: if not here then where?

In her childish rant Penny Sparrow mentions that black people need to go back to where they came from. This is quite shocking considering the fact that the majority of those people on that African beach looked to me to be of African descent. Thus the question then becomes: if not here then where? I’ll leave it to Penny to ponder while in her self-imposed exile.

beach

The reservation of certain spaces, especially public ones such as a KZN beach for the utilisation and enjoyment of a select few…i.e. the white minority is a manifestation of the political violence that has long been perpetuated against black people in South Africa. That the majority of the black population continue to live in locations set out as reserves for black migrant labour is no accident. Penny Sparrow’s utterances clearly indicate that white people in this county not only wish to revive the colonial project but are effectively working to make it a reality, in this instance by attempting to recreate the old colonial territories. Fanon charmingly articulated this when he asserted that “the colonial world is a world divided into compartments”. The compartments in this our great country are simply the location- the old native reserve- set out to be inhabited by blacks and the rest of our expansive country which is unfairly limited to the occupation of whites. This unwritten law along with the country’s reductionist land redistribution polices are the real reason why racists like Penny Sparrow not only feel they have a greater claim to this land but do not consider it problematic to verbally articulate such intimations.

….. the old native reserve- set out to be inhabited by blacks and the rest of our expansive country which is unfairly limited to the occupation of whites

Therefore the current discourse around racism is slightly misguided in that it seeks to create reconciliation by curtailing the use of certain language which even though will deal with the annoyance of having to deal with the likes of Penny Sparrow and her racist ilk, will not curb the existence of institutionalised racism. It will do nothing to abolish the systems put in place simply to perpetuate the plight of black people. The redistribution of land then becomes imperative in its dual functionality, to afford black people a right to economic capital through the ownership of land and to allow people a legitimate claim to this country so that our pilgrimage to the coast occurs more frequently and each time it happens is treated as a homecoming. Autarky

* Sihle is a 3rd year B.Sc student at Wits, with an interest in gender, politics and political economy. She tweets on @sihlesays0