Uber Drivers Complain of Xenophobia, Red Tape in Cape Town

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Uber Technologies Inc. taxi drivers in Cape Town are suffering xenophobic discrimination from traffic police and face lengthy waiting times for license approvals, according to a spokeswoman for the U.S. company.

“Many of our partner drivers say they have been stopped by law enforcement officers who first determine that the driver is not originally from South Africa,” Samantha Allenberg, a spokeswoman for Uber Africa, said by phone from the coastal city. They “then start demanding to see the Uber application on their smartphone,” she said.

South Africa suffered its worst outbreak of xenophobic attacks since 2008 earlier this year, in which seven people were killed. The violence took place in Johannesburg, the country’s most populous city, and the eastern city of Durban, both of which have Uber drivers. Some poor citizens see foreigners, mainly from other African countries, as competitors for jobs in a country with a 26 percent unemployment rate.

“It was one Uber driver that made the claim against one traffic official,” JP Smith, City of Cape Town councillor for safety and security, said by text message. “We have taken the officer off the road pending further investigation.”

Uber is “pleased that the authorities have taken action against the traffic officer whom we brought to their attention,” Allenberg said. “We still say that many of our driver partners are targeted first for their nationality.”

City Protests

Founded in 2009, San Francisco-based Uber connects drivers with passengers via mobile applications in more than 300 cities. The company, which doesn’t own the vehicles or employ the drivers, has taken business from existing taxi companies and was the subject of protests from competitors in Cape Town in January. Uber is loss-making yet is valued at about $50 billion as it adds customers in new cities and tests new features such as food delivery.

Uber drivers have taken passengers on more than 2 million journeys in South Africa this year, compared with about 1 million in 2014, Allenberg said. The City of Johannesburg is considering regulating the service after complaints from taxi drivers in the city.

Securing provincial vehicle operating permits has also been a challenge for Cape Town’s Uber drivers, with some taking more than six months to process, Allenberg said. The company is expecting to hear the outcome of 143 out of 350 outstanding applications to the Western Cape Provincial Government on July 10, while a further 800 are awaiting approval by the City of Cape Town, she said.

Processing Permits

Uber vehicles in Cape Town must be registered as a metered taxi, according to the Western Cape Provincial Government. Traffic officials have impounded over 200 Uber cars in the city during 2015 for not having the right permits.

“We are processing 143 application from Uber drivers, out of a total of about 800 applications for other taxi type vehicles,” Sephesihle Dube, a spokesman for the Western Cape Ministry of Transport and Public Works, said by phone.

The City of Cape Town has impounded 4,000 taxis over the past 16 months, so the number of Uber vehicles is negligible, Smith said.

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