Criminals are targeting older Uber drivers

At around 9 p.m. one Friday evening in December, 50-year-old Uber driver Nolwazi Mtshekexe got a ride request from a passenger in Soweto, a particularly dangerous corner of Johannesburg. She knew it was risky to pick up passengers from the area at night but decided to take a chance.

The fare, to be paid in cash, was about 150 rand ($8.30) to drop the passenger off at a nightclub in Rosebank, 35 kilometers away. But when Mtshekexe arrived at the pick-up point, three men were waiting for her, she told Rest of World. They seemed drunk, and two of them looked to be carrying weapons in their pants pockets, which made her hesitant.

Mtshekexe is part of a group of female drivers in Johannesburg who call themselves “night riders.” They share safety tips or alert each other to danger. Mtshekexe had heard about female drivers being attacked or carjacked after picking up more than one male customer at night, particularly in rough neighborhoods. She had a bad feeling about the Soweto passengers, but it was too late: The men quickly got into her black BMW. Heart pounding, she drove toward the destination. The men whispered in the back seat. After a tense 15 minutes of silence, one man spoke up: “Ma’am, why do you work at this hour of the night?”

“I am hustling for my three kids because my husband passed away,” Mtshekexe recalled telling them. The men remained silent. A few minutes before the car reached the destination, they explained that they’d intended to rob Mtshekexe and take her car, but had taken pity on her. They warned her against working late at night again. “Next time, we will not be kind to you,” she remembered them saying. To underline their point, they refused to pay for the ride.

Despite the close call, Mtshekexe continues working nights. She has since been robbed on multiple occasions. Mtshekexe and 11 other older South African gig drivers, told Rest of World they feel stuck in a dangerous industry and lack better job opportunities.

South Africa ranks third in Africa on the global organized crime index. Cities like Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Durban are some of the most dangerous in the world when it comes to carjackings, aggravated robberies, and murders. According to recent crime statisticsa large number of these crimes were reported in the last quarter of 2023 and the first quarter of 2024.

There are approximately 135,000 digital platform-based gig workers in South Africa, estimated Fairwork, a global research project on gig work, in its 2023 report. Shane Choshane, a labor specialist and gig work researcher from the University of the Witwatersrand, told Rest of World the gig economy in Africa is dominated by younger drivers. Drivers aged 50 and above often join the industry because they were laid off, or to supplement their income.

Older workers are more vulnerable to the crime endemic in the industry for a number of reasons. “They suffer from health issues and may find it difficult to defend themselves,” Ndabezinhle Khoza, secretary-general of the South African Ride Hailing Association, told Rest of World. “Companies like Uber, Bolt, and inDrive do not have effective security measures and are slow to respond on time during an emergency, even where older people are concerned.”

135,000 The approximate number of digital platform-based gig workers in South Africa.

Fairwork

In 2016, Uber driver Winnie Mzilankatha was carjacked; the robbers took her money and cellphone. Two years later, a minibus taxi mafia impounded her car, accusing her of picking up customers in their territory. She had to pay a full day’s earnings — 1,000 rand ($54) — to get her car back.

Traumatized by the two incidents, Mzilankatha vowed to stop working for Uber before she turned 50 years old. Now 50, she feels stuck, with three children to look after and no job prospects. She told Rest of World she has been robbed six times in the past three years.

“I suffer from high blood pressure; my feet are always painful and I’m tired. When thieves see me, they easily take advantage of me. But as long as they leave me alive, I will continue working for as long as it takes,” Mzilankatha said. She thinks Uber should put aside a fund for older drivers to make it easier for them to retire.

Lorraine Onduru, Uber spokesperson for Sub-Saharan Africa, told Rest of World the company immediately investigates any incidents of crime when it is made aware of them, and takes appropriate action. “The company provides drivers with a range of safety features, including audio recording, RideCheck (a feature that sends notifications during rides asking if the driver is okay), and an in-app emergency button,” she said.

Sandra Suzanne Buyole, public relations manager for Bolt Africa, acknowledged that drivers, including those who are older, face intimidation.

“Bolt condemns criminal conduct and violence of any form directed towards ride-hailing drivers because it believes that everyone has the right to earn a living and move around without risk of harm, intimidation, coercion, or fear of death or injury,” she said. In response to driver feedback, Bolt is testing a passenger verification feature to improve driver safety. New customers will be asked to take a selfie before they are able to book a ride, Buyole said.

Andries Lamola, 59, recalls the day he was robbed while sitting in his car, as he waited to pick up an order outside a restaurant in central Johannesburg. A young man came up to his window and told him to look to the side. Lamola looked but saw nothing; when he turned around, he found that the man had disappeared with his cellphone and the bag where he kept his cash. During his three-year career, he has had other phones stolen. “I have heard worse and that other people were killed while on the job,” he told Rest of World. “Especially for us who are older, the risks are high. I use this job to make some money for my grandchildren.”

“I have heard worse and that other people were killed while on the job.”

Lamola hopes to retire one day and move back to rural Limpopo to be with his family. But he is unsure when he’ll be able to save enough money to do so. Although he knows that the job has no benefits, he hopes that one day things will change for the better.

Crime against gig drivers has become prevalent in the country, and the police have received some reports of carjacking, robberies, and assaults, Brenda Muridili, a spokesperson for the South African Police Service, told Rest of World.

She said the police do not have specific statistics related to the sector, but that efforts were being made to improve driver security. “Police have, on several occasions, interacted with representatives of e-hailing services and engaged on how they can work together, especially on how the companies can improve the security of the drivers,” Muridili said.

Sixty-year-old Teddy Dube switched from driving a metered taxi to working for Uber in 2014; being a driver is all he knows. In March, when he was on his way to pick up a customer in Eldorado Park, a thief smashed his window. Dube sped away, leaving the robber behind. He told Rest of World that on at least two occasions, two thieves jumped into his car after requesting rides, only to grab his phone and run out. On two other occasions, he picked up thieves who refused to pay the cash fee, grabbing his phones before jumping out of the vehicle. “Those of us who are now older can’t risk chasing after thieves. Some of them are part of gangs who might hijack (my car) or even do worse; we always hear such stories,” he said.

Dube now stays vigilant at traffic intersections at night; he has heard stories of people being carjacked while waiting for the lights to turn green. Despite the risks, he does not intend to retire anytime soon — he needs to provide for his family.

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