In 2013, Uber was in the midst of an aggressive global expansion when it launched in South Africa. The app requires a critical mass of drivers to function properly, otherwise riders must wait prohibitively long for trips. In Cape Town, a Zimbabwean driver who I will call Mike (he asked that his name not be used because he fears deactivation for criticizing the platform) attended several meetings held by Uber managers seeking to win over potential drivers. He enjoyed the free sandwiches and coffee they offered him. “In the first six months those guys were beautiful to us,” he recalled.
After arriving in Cape Town, Mike had initially worked in hotels and restaurants, later becoming a meter-taxi driver. When he heard about Uber from some former colleagues—they spoke of higher earnings, no shift managers—he immediately signed up. Uber’s pitch to drivers was the same as it is everywhere else: “Make good money. Drive when you want. No office, no boss.” Mike’s first impression of Uber, he said, was, “Here comes a company that’s liberating me.”
But in South Africa, Uber’s model doesn’t work the way it can in some other countries. The country’s severe income disparity means that few professional drivers actually own the cars they drive; instead, they rent them from owners and split the earnings, very often struggling to make ends meet. Though Uber does not release its figures, drivers and their representatives estimate that since 2013, the service has grown to around 4,000 Uber cars in Cape Town, mostly driven by foreign African migrants. A substantial majority do not own their cars—a model that Mike soon came to believe was “broken.” Here, more than anywhere, the gig economy’s promise of independence was illusory.