Südafrika Uber alles? No, we’re giving in too


The past week has seen the innovative – and some say revolutionary – application Uber, attacked worldwide by ordinary taxi associations, and, as can be expected, the State. Just a few days ago two Uber executives were arrested by the French government for violating entrepreneurial regulations. This comes as investors are already showing France their heels. Germany, South Korea and Brazil are also some examples of governments which do not welcome innovation which they cannot absolutely control.

In South Africa, while the national government has not intervened, yet, our ordinary meter taxi associations are engaged in a war of intimidation and harassment against Uber drivers. These taxi drivers, who have been protesting in Cape Town and Johannesburg, claim the Uber service is “ruining the economy with cut prices and mistreatment of its drivers,” generally, that it is unfair competition. The Democratic Alliance-controlled Western Cape Provincial Government, however, as the custodian of Africa’s hailed capital of market liberalism, has decided to intervene, and has taken the authoritarian route by impounding 200 Uber vehicles. This is due to a lack of taxi permits. But as Uber has explained, the government has simply not given them the permits they applied for, and, it seems, the Uber service isn’t even covered by current extant law. In my legal opinion, this means that they do not need to get the permits, but the Western Cape disagrees.

Obviously, there is no such thing as “unfair” competition – save, perhaps, the government and its monopolized services. If your competitor does so well that you feel the need to label them as playing unfairly, then it simply means that you have been beaten. You were not as well equipped as your competitor to serve the market demand and the market has duly responded by manifesting that. Remember, the market is not a computer system that can be abused, or a bug exploited. The market consists of you and me, individuals with agency who are perfectly capable (in most instances) of making choices.

When a customer gets into an Uber car rather than a meter taxi, the Uber driver did not force them in, they didn’t lie about the service and they didn’t deflate the meter taxi’s tires. The customer gets into the Uber car because he wants to – he prefers the price and he prefers the service. The meter taxi driver must either adapt or die, so to speak. There is no objective, moral requirement that the meter taxi industry must survive. Just like an overpriced bakery, any meter taxi association should be able to fail in the face of superior competition. But we know this natural state of affairs won’t be allowed to exist for as long as the governments and political parties see an opportunity to be regarded as “defenders of industry” or, better yet, “defenders of employment”.

We can only hope that Uber doesn’t give in to political pressure. As corporate individuals, like natural individuals, companies and organizations should also rebel against blatantly oppressive systems. South African businesses nearing the end of Apartheid made their dissatisfaction with the racist system of the day known, publicly, but since then, it would appear that the private sector is happy to toe the line with whatever decision our political overlords make. “Legal” has never meant “right” or “moral.” Law or public policy need only be adhered to if it serves to equally protect life or justly acquired property. The rest can simply be ignored in a peaceful demonstration of civil disobedience.