Escalating xenophobia in South Africa is tarnishing its “Rainbow Nation”. But over the past year, the spotlight has increasingly shifted focus to Cape Town because of a series of events culminating in the Greenmarket Square sit-in — in which hundreds of foreign nationals demanded the South African find them asylum in safer countries — and the subsequent forced relocation of those involved.
By 2018, South Africa hosted more than 270,000 refugees and asylum seekers, of whom 84% come from sub-Saharan Africa. Many of these foreign nationals came here to escape poverty, political violence and war. But in recent years, conditions in the country have become equally as dangerous to them because of sporadic Afrophobic violence, dressed as xenophobic attacks.
Ours is a country experiencing grave poverty and one of the world’s highest unemployment rates, and rhetoric would have you believe that foreign nationals are responsible for it. But the true culprits are businesses exploiting the vulnerability of undocumented immigrants living in our country, to bypass the labour laws protecting legal labour in South Africa, our citizens and others permitted to work here.
Upon visiting Cape Town last year to produce my documentary “GUTTED”, I began recording conversations with Uber drivers, mostly from Zimbabwe. I had no particular ambition for these recordings, I just found our chats to be incredibly insightful. But upon review, what I found was a recurring narrative regarding the issue of work, the ability to work, and the vulnerability caused by its necessity.
Talent’s case is one such example of the types of abuse foreign nationals have to endure due to the vulnerability of being undocumented in South Africa. The Zimbabwean immigrant, who drove me to the airport early one morning, had uprooted his family because of his job, as the manager of one of Johannesburg’s top restaurants, when they decided to expand their business into Cape Town. Just over a year had passed and he found himself out of the job, becoming an Uber driver to support his family.
“I didn’t like being in the fridge all day, and my doctor advised me against it,” he said. “I was always getting sick. [It was the] same problem all the time. So he told me at some point the drugs will stop working and I won’t have anything to help me. Those antibiotics are not meant for prolonged periods.”
When Talent informed his bosses about the health issues he had developed at the new restaurant, he was met with indifference. He believes his managers’ lack of empathy was rooted in racism, having observed a very different experience when his white colleagues had fallen ill.
Trymore, an Uber Black driver who accepted my regular ride request so that he wouldn’t waste a trip back to town, told me that the possibility of experiencing racism is one of the biggest reasons a lot of his South African friends refused to become Uber drivers. He thought this logic was ludicrous given the amount of unemployment in the country. He had never experienced anything like that in all of his time as an Uber driver; in fact, becoming a driver helped him acquire the luxury vehicle he was coining it with.
“I asked them, ‘Why don’t you guys just come to Uber?’ I gave them an example; I said, ‘Do you remember when I started, I didn’t even have a car?’,” he said. “They say, ‘Hawu kanti… I can’t drive white people. Every time, they want you to call them: boss, boss, boss’.”
However, I had the chance to engage a South African Uber driver named Anees on the matter while he drove me to Canal Walk one evening. He added another dimension to the debate. He said that local cab drivers did not want to join Uber, despite its popularity, because many of them currently work for companies which provided vehicles, whereas if they became Uber drivers, they would have to rent a vehicle for as much as R2,500 per week.
“They don’t want to work with that pressure. With meter cabs, if I don’t make money, the boss won’t make money,” he said. “So for instance, They will drive for R10 per kilometre: R5 will go to the boss and R5 for them. So, if I don’t do a trip, I don’t owe the boss anything. So he can sit there and he can sleep the whole day.”
But, cab drivers have not taken lightly to this disruption to their job security and have attempted to intimidate Uber drivers ever since the service first became available in the country. Anees said that the fact that he was South African protected him from these attacks; in fact, cab drivers were intentionally preying on the vulnerability of foreign nationals driving for the service.
“A lot of these guys that are threatening people are also just trying their luck. They judge you by your appearance,” he said. “So, I look like a local… so, I can equally retaliate the same way that they are treating me, whereas these foreigners are too scared to get into trouble because half of them are not here legally.”
Eden, a driver with whom I found myself weaving through Woodstock’s sideroads during afternoon traffic, said that foreign nationals driving for Uber were even easy targets for the city, which has a backlog of permit requests from Uber drivers spanning four years.
“A quick notification that this is an Uber is if you are carrying a white person, and I’m black,” he said. “Even the police, they give us a hard time now, they are impounding cars. So, it’s quick for them to tell that it is an Uber, especially if you are carrying a white person. It’s a big disaster.”
He said that his friends have even resorted to asking their passengers to drive through roadblocks so that they do not lose their cars because the police do not mess with white drivers. For those who are not so lucky, they’ve had to pay fines up to R14,000 depending on the number of times they have been impounded for being caught without the permits they so patiently wait for.
Living under the constant threat to the lives they have built has left countless asylum seekers in the city at the mercy of everyone looking to save or make a quick buck. Xenophobia violence may be sporadic in nature, but foreign nationals living in South Africa are under constant attack. Theirs is a daily battle in which they have no choice but to watch their human dignity being stripped away bit by bit.
The views expressed here are the author’s personal opinion and do necessarily reflect the editorial policy of The Daily Vox.
Angelo C Louw is the former Advocacy Officer at Study in Poverty and Inequality Institute. He launched his podcast UBER SHARE ahead of Africa Day to give insight into the hopes, fears and dreams of foriegn nationals living in South Africa.