It was the 1st of February, the night of the Imagine Dragons concert in Cape Town, with heavy traffic and multiple road closures. I was due to catch the late-night KLM flight. Giving myself ample time, I took a while to find an e-hailing vehicle, eventually giving up on Bolt, my normal first choice, and settling on Uber.
I get into the front seat, make some small talk as we sit in traffic, eventually clearing the city and making it to the highway. As we come close to the airport turnoff, the driver receives a phone call, chats for a while, eventually signing off with “2 minutes”. I’m alert, as two minutes is a little soon for him to meet someone, considering he’s still got to drop me off. As we reach the turnoff, the navigation, on speaker, says “turn left now”.
The driver carries on straight. If you know Cape Town, you’ll know it’s extremely difficult to get this wrong, and for an e-hailing driver, unthinkable. I ask him where he’s going. “Don’t worry, we’re going this way round” he says, gesturing vaguely left. Now I’m hyper-alert.
We take the next turnoff, Borcherds Quarry. Borcherds Quarry road is notorious in Cape Town. It’s a hijacking and robbery hotspot, even in the daytime, and a quick search will reveal numerous articles like this. I used to work in Philippi, and take that turnoff, and it’s the kind of place where one actually considers heeding the usually-excessive advice to leave enough space behind the car in front of you in case you need to get out in a hurry. We had multiple suppliers refuse to deliver to us, and yes, we did have a vehicle hijacking at that spot.
It’s also an area that Bolt and Uber drivers get advised to avoid, and speaking to quite a few, do actually avoid.
Especially long after dark.
We turn left into Borcherds Quarry. It is possible to connect to the airport this way, going left, but all my alarm bells are ringing.
Then the driver begins to turn right into a deserted industrial area, with the nav continuing to direct him left. There’s no more doubt. The call to the accomplice/s, the multiple wrong turns, and now heading into an area there’s no possible good reason to enter.
I grab the wheel, tell him that no, he’s not turning this way, he’s taking me the airport. He insists that he’s just going the back route, that it’ll connect. We’re in a stalemate, but I’m not backing down.
Time passes. Milliseconds, minutes? I don’t know. I’m waiting for a weapon to be drawn. Unfortunately I have a berserker streak (see links below for examples), but for now I’m completely calm. I’m bigger than him, and can be forceful when needs be. Most likely he doesn’t have a weapon, or perhaps evaluates me correctly, but eventually he concedes, says he’ll go the other way, and we turn left again, me still holding the wheel in case of any last-second attempts to head back.
We get the airport, I unpack, thank him for the lift, and leave. Immediately thinking of all the people who’ve experienced far worse than me, who because they didn’t scream, or react in a certain way, had their experienced undermined. How our reactions in these moments are not conscious, but rather playing out of deep-seated patterns. Fight, flight, freeze. Polite greetings. So far I’ve just been lucky that my reactions seem to have been the right ones.
I go through airport check-in, customs, still completely calm. It’s only when I’m at the gate, waiting for boarding to begin, that I feel the adrenaline, and anger that this driver is still out there.
I report the incident to Uber. They have a well-developed interface, populated by a terrifying array of options, clearly there since these kind of things occur regularly enough to warrant it. Fortunately none of the options apply to me. I am still in one piece, with all my luggage. I complete a detailed report, and almost immediately get a response, possibly automated:
Hello, we are sorry to hear about this experience. We have escalated this to a specialized support team and they will be reaching out to you as soon as possible.
I catch my flight to Amsterdam, and on the train to Brussels, check my email.
Hi Ian, thanks for letting us know. We take the safety of all users very seriously.
If possible, could you provide us with more information about this incident?
Any additional information will help us better understand the situation and take the appropriate action.
We’ll look out to your reply.
Now I’m annoyed. I’ve given them a detailed report, and I don’t have anything to add. I respond to them in that vein.
I arrive in Brussels, take the 40 minute walk to my hotel, the weather cool, threatening to rain, but pleasant.
At the hotel, I check email again.
Thanks for getting in touch.
We received this email from a different email address than the one you initially used to contact us.
In order for us to address your inquiry, please contact us from that email address.
We appreciate your patience and look forward to hearing from you.
Now I’m even more annoyed. I was on my mobile on the train, and used a different email address to reply. But there’s what looks like a unique code that forms part of the reply-to address, so there’s no good reason why Uber cannot associate the two.
I reply again, once more stating that I’ve given them all the relevant details, and this time asking them what action they’ve taken regarding the driver.
The next day I receive a reply:
Due to this experience, we’ve adjusted your fare to ZAR176, which is the upfront price you were shown when you requested the trip.
A R26 refund?! Based on them charging me more as a result of the detour in the first place! The response is atrocious, insulting. Uber drivers are severely underpaid, and the last thing I care about is R26. No feedback on the driver, whether there’ve been previous incidents. And worst of all, not even any kind of indication about what action they’ve taken, whether the driver is still out there, that they’ve taken the incident seriously, that they’ve taken steps to to avoid future occurrences, that the driver will not get to do this again on others.
Some suggested reporting the incident to the police. This didn’t even cross my mind. I was out of the country for a while, and the police are notorious for not opening cases where possible, or sending victims to other stations. I can see a tour of all the police stations from Sea Point to Nyanga. Sadly, the Nyanga police probably had multiple murders that day, which they’re both under-resourced and often incapable of dealing with, so the case of a possible crime that wasn’t can hardly expect to get a response. (I’ve subsequently found out that the airport has its own police station, which would have been an option.)
And that’s the last I’ve heard. Ticket closed. Is the driver still out there. Have there been other incidents? Was there an innocent explanation for it all? I’ve tried hard to find one. Perhaps the call distracted the driver from the first turnoff. But I don’t have any explanation for the right turn. Looking into it subsequently, if am remembering and piecing together everything correctly, the driver tried to turn into Montreal Drive. This meanders around an industrial area, and has no connecting roads to the airport.