Uber has not been having an easy ride lately in South Africa. After a string of attacks on passengers triggered safety concerns, the popular app-based car service is rolling out an “SOS” button in some vehicles.
Public concerns over the service’s safety have been gathering steam since July, after a woman ordered an Uber in Johannesburg, and, after being picked up, was strangled, thrown in the trunk, robbed and sexually assaulted, according to Ulrich Roux, the lawyer who is representing the victim and another passenger involved in a similar assault who managed to escape. Two individuals have been arrested in connection with the attacks, one of whom was a former Uber driver who had cleared all background checks and had no previous criminal background, the company has said.
It adds to the growing global concerns surrounding Uber safety; sexual assaults by drivers have already sparked controversy in major markets like the United States, Canada and India.
Last week, after television station ANN7 ran a story about another attack on a female Uber passenger, the women’s wing of the ruling party aired its concerns.
“Several cases against Uber drivers [that] entail kidnapping, robbery and sexual assault have been reported to the South African Police Service,” Meokgo Matuba, the secretary-general of the African National Congress Women’s League (ANCWL), said in a statement. “We call on all women to be vigilant when choosing to utilise this service.”
Uber welcomed ANCWL’s input, and agreed with the group that “any violence or aggressive behavior is completely unacceptable,” Uber Africa spokeswoman Samantha Allenberg said in a statement. “If there is any allegation of wrongdoing by a driver, they are immediately prevented from accessing the app until an investigation can be concluded,” she added.
The company had already announced new measures to improve rider safety a few days before ANCWL spoke out. The app will now inform South African passengers of the colour of the vehicle they’ve requested, in addition to its model, license plate number and the driver’s name and photo. In Johannesburg, a new “SOS” button is being piloted in some cars, accessible to drivers and linked to the company’s central security system.
The plan is that eventually the feature may be made available to passengers using the app, as is the case in India.
Like other big cities with limited public transportation, Uber has taken off in the sprawling metro of Johannesburg since entering the market. For customers, the service has provided an alternative to pricier taxis; for drivers, it has created jobs at a moment when unemployment in the country is nearly 27 per cent.
But, as in other places, the San Francisco-based company, which critics say dodges regulations and exploits its drivers, has not escaped controversy in South Africa. Uber drivers and meter taxi drivers who feel the pinch on their business have repeatedly clashed, and Uber drivers have also complained about unfair pricing on the company’s part, among other things.
South Africa is not the only market where passenger safety - and women’s safety in particular - has become a flash point for the company. Media reports of sexual assault of passengers by drivers have surfaced in the United States and Britain, and in 2014, the sexual assault of a female passenger by an Uber driver in India caused an uproar and a government ban on the service. Uber subsequently introduced an “SOS” feature on the app to connect distressed passengers to local authorities.