This month, (February 2019) four men, one an Uber driver, are in court on charges of rape. Four women reported that they had been gang-raped by their Uber driver and his accomplices in four separate incidents in the Randburg area of Johannesburg South Africa. Uber driver Elias Mankgane and his accomplices Daniel Maswikaneng, Treasure Bonga and Themba Mkhwanazi, who allegedly hid in the boot of the car when passengers were being picked up, have all pleaded not guilty to charges of kidnapping, robbery, assault and rape. One of the survivors was allegedly raped in front of her partner. Another survivor has openly identified herself as Susan Dey, singer Tamara Dey’s mother.
Ulrich Roux, legal representative for the women, said they planned to launch a civil suit against Uber.
“When the victims ordered their respective Uber taxis they were misled by Uber into believing that they were paying for a safe and reliable service, as Uber promises. This was obviously not the case”, Roux said.
Roux believes that Uber was negligent in ensuring that the app-based service could not be infiltrated and that people who are not affiliated with the company in any way could not gain access to their system.
Roux said Uber needed to be held liable.
“Uber has also not reached out to one of the victims thus far; they have not offered assistance, counselling or any other support to the victims. They have instead made it clear that they are going to distance themselves from these incidents and in the process not accept any liability whatsoever,” he said.
Uber would not comment on any aspect of the case while the criminal case was still pending.
About 56% of South Africans depend on public transport to get to work, their leisure activities and to visit family. And according to the Statistics South Africa Gender Patterns in Transport Report, 2013, females are more likely to use public transport.
Several incidents have raised concern about the levels of safety women can expect while using public transport. Women worry about the risk of violence and intimidation, especially when they are travelling on their own.
For women, the use of public transport is most prevalent in KwaZulu-Natal (45.3%), Mpumalanga (42.8%), North West (42.5%) and Gauteng (41.8%), the report found. If recent cases are considered, women, especially those travelling alone, are increasingly vulnerable when using public transport.
In November 2018, taxi driver Lebogang Gift Mokoena was sentenced by the South Gauteng High Court sitting in Palm Ridge to 13 life sentences and 340 years in prison. Mokoena was responsible for robbing, kidnapping and raping a number of his female passengers. He also admitted to being part of a three-man gang which was responsible for raping a girl in front of her mother, reported the Sowetan. All of these events occurred between September 2016 and October 2017.
In August 2018, a woman posted on Facebook that she had allegedly been attacked physically by a taxi driver in Johannesburg. Zoey Zothile posted pictures of the aftermath of her attack, saying: “Today a taxi driver assaulted me because I got off his taxi and took another one that was fast, he kicked and slapped me and also hit my friend,” she wrote on Facebook.
Zizipho Mqingwana, a 23-year-old regular taxi commuter in Johannesburg, told Daily Maverick that she does not feel safe, even at a taxi rank.
“Every time I’m about to get on a taxi, I get anxiety because it’s not a pleasant experience. Not only the comments that come from the taxi driver or the taxi drivers being rude, but it’s also the environment of the taxi ranks that can also be unpleasant,” she said.
For many female public transport passengers, the advent of e-hailing services such as Uber and Taxify were seen as a safer and more reliable alternative.
Yet, they too have not been without incident.
Sometimes the threat is subtle. Speaking to Daily Maverick, Sphumelele Ndlovu said she has felt unsafe while using an Uber.
“The driver called to say he could not find my location and after we had sorted that out, he started flirting with me. I was on edge that whole ride,” said Ndlovu, who used the Uber service in Springs, Johannesburg east.
Sarah James, from Redhill in Durban, said before she got her licence her mother would rather drop her off wherever she needed to be because of the horror stories she and her mom had heard about Uber.
“She (my mom) had read so many horror stories of Uber being unsafe for women and women being fetched by fake Ubers and attacked, abducted or raped,” said James.
Taxify, which works in a similar way to Uber except that customers have several payment options, has also had its share of incidents.
Recently, a 20-year-old woman and her 19-year-old friend were stabbed, allegedly by their Taxify driver. This is according to the father of the woman who described the incident to Cape Talk.
“They were out jolling, you know youngsters, 20-year-olds,” he said. His daughter was near her boyfriend’s house when she realised she did not have cash on her. She told her driver that she would pay him double if she could get out and get the money. The driver pulled out a knife and stabbed her, as she was in the front seat. According to the father, his daughter managed to escape but her friend was stabbed and suffered a punctured lung.
Mpho Sefo, speaking on behalf of a friend who wanted to remain anonymous, said the young woman was sexually assaulted by a Taxify driver while on her way home from hanging out at a club.
“She was drunk and the driver touched her inappropriately,” Sefo said.
Sefo said her friend has not laid charges, but did contact Taxify.
“They asked for details and said they would follow up,” she said. They never followed up, she claimed.
Gareth Taylor, country manager for Taxify in South Africa, responded to Daily Maverick.
“Taxify was made aware of the Okavango, Cape Town stabbing incident, and co-operated fully with the SAPS throughout its investigation, sharing information that led to the arrest of the alleged attacker,” said Taylor. Taylor added that the company had been in contact with victims about the incident.
When asked what action Taxify took when it came to complaints made about drivers and the safety of passengers, Taylor said the safety of all South Africans was important to Taxify, no matter where they were travelling.
“Taxify unequivocally condemns any and all incidents of violence in the strongest possible terms, and reaffirms its commitment to support law enforcement services in any way possible,” he said.
Taylor said Taxify aimed to improve safety by partnering with the South African Police Services, Metro police and the Namola emergency assistance app. When instances of violence are reported to Taxify, its “High Priority Team” is activated. He added that any driver who is under police investigation is suspended.
However, is this enough?
If research by ActionAid is accurate, 56% of women have experienced violence while using public transport. Taxify’s measures may be helpful, but do not prevent incidents of assault.
So who should be held responsible for keeping women using public transport safe? It seems that, beyond opening criminal cases, there is not much women can do to hold providers of public transport to account.
According to Western Cape Minister of Transportation and Public Works spokesperson, Siphesihle Dube, the law doesn’t allow you to hold a company liable.
“Taxify (like Uber, and so on) is an online platform used by individual operators. It is the individual operators that require operating licences and not Taxify because those individual operators provide the public transport service, and therefore are the ones with a legal relationship with licensing authorities. Operating permits are not issued to an online platform, but rather to the individual,” said Dube.
Lisa Vetten, an honorary research associate at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research, said:
“Stranger-rapists are opportunists, one should just try and limit the opportunity… but the criminally minded are creative, so you can’t always anticipate what will happen.”
For Vetten, the answer lies in improved security. With minibus taxis, it needs to be at hubs or ranks. For Taxify and Uber, better security needs to be put in place within their systems to ensure that no one can pose as a driver.
Following several incidents internationally — a CNN investigation documented at least 103 cases of Uber drivers in the US who have been accused of sexually assaulting or abusing passengers in the past four years, while several cases of assault of Uber passengers in India have been reported — e-hailing services launched in-app security features.
In 2016, Uber announced the launched the Real-Time ID checking in the US and India which allowed the company to frequently ask drivers to send selfies before the driver could gain access into their account. This allows for Uber to match the selfie to the driver listed on their database.
The feature was only launched in South Africa in 2017 — too late for the alleged victims of Mankgane and his accomplices.
An additional security feature available is the in-app emergency button. This feature allows users to connect straight to the police. In South Africa, the passenger will connect to a private security company.
“With the push of a button in the app, riders, drivers and delivery-partners can connect directly to private emergency services and security response when needed through a third-party private security supplier,” Uber told Daily Maverick.
Taxify also has an in-app SOS button, but it can only be activated by a driver.
“This enables drivers to connect quickly and easily to private security response teams, emergency medical services and roadside assistance in the event of any medical or security emergencies that they or their passengers experience,” Taxify said.
Passengers of Taxify don’t have any access to the SOS button connected to Namola — they would have to download the Namola app separately.
Many women believe that providers of public transportation do not take women’s safety into account.
“There have been too many incidents that have been reported of women being assaulted (while using) public transport. I honestly don’t know where we can turn to for safety. Being a woman in South Africa is proving to be somewhat of an extreme sport,” said Sefo.
“I definitely think (those providing) public transportation should find ways to make it safe for us to use, especially in a country like ours where a woman could walk to the shop and come back in a body bag, or not at all,” Ndlovu said.
Deepa Kesa, who uses both Uber and Taxify regularly, had some advice for commuters.
“I always sit in front. And if I am ever travelling at odd hours I prefer to use Uber because at least there is a ‘share location’ setting that you can use if you feel uncomfortable,” she said. DM