Infrastructural violence in Johannesburg’s taxi industry
By Silvia Danielak, Department of Urban Studies and Planning, MIT
Since the arrival of Uber, Taxify/Bolt, and other ride-hailing applications, South African urban centers have seen a rise in violence between the traditional metered taxis and the new ride-share services. Hundreds of criminal cases have been opened over the last years, and protests organized by ride-hailing drivers have drawn attention to the rising tension in the transport industry.
Transport-related violence is not new to South Africa, which has seen ‘taxi wars’ in the late apartheid years and where organized criminal networks govern much of the mini bus quasi-public transportation system. Chronic urban violence in South Africa has been treated extensively in both academic literature and addressed through policy interventions. Yet, the historical and socio-economic explanations for the prevailing violence fall short in explaining not only the brutality which has recently ridden the single-passenger taxi industry but also its very spatiality. The common narrative of technology-induced competition seems plausible to account for the conflict, but fails to explain the spatial patterns that the violent incidents in the taxi industry exhibit – and that mark drivers’ mobility. It is therefore critical to take a closer look at the spatial practices of ride-hailing drivers in Johannesburg; how drivers navigate the city in the face of a constant threat of violent encounters with traditional taxicab drivers.
My research (Danielak 2019) suggests an infrastructural perspective on the recent violence in the taxi industry to understand how encounters between traditional metered taxi and ride-hailing drivers are mediated by urban infrastructure. Such infrastructure includes spaces of economic activity, such as shopping malls, up-scale hotels, or transport infrastructure such as the Gautrain, a commuter rail in the Gauteng province, connecting Pretoria and Johannesburg. The perceived risk and violent encounters are localized in those specific places and in Johannesburg’s Central Business District with its dense shops and offices. It seems tempting to link present-day conflict in South Africa to the dichotomies of the apartheid era, whose legacy still shapes urban spaces, their planning and architecture. Despite this legacy, the conflict in the private taxi industry however seems specific to the symbolic and material dimensions of post-apartheid urbanism, the stark inequality produced by liberal market-driven urbanization and competitive access to space.
Studying ‘urban encounters’
In order to understand how ride-hailing drivers navigate public space in their pursuit of economic activity and in the presence of a tangible threat of violence, my study relied on ethnographic observation in Johannesburg between 2017 and 2018, when at times the threat of violence, tension and protest in the ride-hailing industry was a topic of daily conversation. My interactions with ride-hailing drivers revealed their diverse demographic background, motives for driving, and tactics to navigate the urban space in their daily work – in part, negotiating with me every pick-up and drop-off for considerations of safety. Methodologically, it is important to note that ethnographic observations uncovered the “urban encounters” (Valentine 2013) shaped by the history, politics and materiality of a place. Those three dimensions of urban encounters point us to understand why violence erupts in and around certain sites and infrastructures. It helps uncover the important role of the built environment in shaping and navigating conflict, allowing drivers to take refuge, hide, evade and confront situations of violence and claim space for their economic activity and for being in the city.
Two dimensions to infrastructural violence
A closer examination of the intensification of violent incidents around the Gautrain stops and drivers’ modes of navigating these stops during the pick-up and drop-off of clients reveals how infrastructural violence manifests in the post-apartheid city: through socio-economic and spatial exclusion, and through direct physical violence taking place in public space.
The Gautrain and its stops are prime examples of South Africa’s ambitious, neoliberal urban policy of the 1990s and 2000s. The Gautrain symbolizes the liberal economy that South African leaders pursued after the end of apartheid and that has yet remained inaccessible for so many social groups. Contemporary politics, too, shape the performance of public transport: Due to its fare pricing, limited network, strictly regulated code of behavior for passengers and overall securitization of the infrastructure, exclusivity marks the Gautrain infrastructure. It has remained inaccessible for a large share of the Gauteng province’s population. As the Gautrain stops inserted themselves in urban settlements from Johannesburg to Pretoria as a measure of urban revitalization and development, they simultaneously produced exclusion. Their aesthetic is based on a logic of securitization, consisting in barriers, walls and lightly armed security personnel. The train stops’ operation, being only marginally connected to the public transport system, drives the demand for the single passenger taxi and ride-hailing services at its stations in order for passengers to complete their journey.
Furthermore, as I detail in my study, infrastructural violence is exerted by competing participants of the taxi industry. Meter taxis and ride-hailing cars cruising around the Gautrain stations are the means and objects of attack. Ride-hailing drivers are lured into pick-ups to be assaulted, cars are chased, torched and – most benignly – prevented from accessing stations to pick-up passengers. In return, drop-offs and pick-ups are organized out of sight of metered taxi drivers, making use of the ephemeral nature of the ride-hailing industry that allows circumvention of spatial fixtures such as the taxi rank.
Spaces of mediation
Indeed, mobility at large – for drivers, passengers and even security personnel employed by Gautrain – has been altered in the presence of violent conflicts. Ride-hailing drivers negotiate each pick-up with the client, asking for confirmation of meeting points, providing instructions for the meeting and deciding on the drop-off in a location deemed safe, often at considerable distance to the Gautrain stop as an attempt to avoid the attention of drivers parked at the taxi rank. Ride-hailing companies have also augmented their in-app security through panic buttons. Further, Gautrain management added security personnel in certain locations.
Yet, such interventions fail to understand the uneven landscape of risk across the various Gautrain stops. While some stops are known to be especially dangerous, known as ‘no-go zones’ for ride-hailing drivers and declared a ‘war zone’ by journalists (TimesLIVE 2017), other train stops are commonly known to be safe and unproblematic. A comparison across different stations reveals their distinct architectural features – the location of the taxi rank in relation to drop-off spots, the streetscape, adjacent residential areas, pedestrian flows and road traffic. They determine the perceived likelihood and actual probability of violent incidents and overall safety.
Infrastructure as site of suffering
Focusing on infrastructure as “productive site for exploring questions about the political economy of social suffering in cities” (Rodgers and O’Neill 2012, 403) thus helps locating and contextualizing violence in the post-apartheid city. Rather than focusing on the socio-economic dimension of structural violence alone, the focus on the transport infrastructure highlights the spatial, material and place-based nature of violence. It emphasizes how infrastructure can be the site of direct, interpersonal violent encounters between different individuals and identity-driven social groups.
The study of infrastructures as spaces of conflict is relevant to other situations in South African cities – across the wider public transport industry (Daily Maverick 2020), public service delivery (Mail & Guardian n.d.) or the #RhodesMustFall protest (News24 2015) challenging South African universities. Beyond the South African case presented here, the introduction of ride-hailing by aforementioned technological platforms has led to protest and violent encounters across the globe. While the ride-hailing industry has become more established, the socio-spatial consequences of its activities remain of interest. Different from other modes of transportation that materialize in fixed infrastructure – rails, bus stops or ports –, ride-hailing could easily be dismissed as an ephemeral, transient figure in the city. And yet, as this research in Johannesburg as well as my preliminary participatory investigations with ride-share drivers in New York City have revealed, physical urban infrastructure is key to the taxicab industry: Drivers rely on urban infrastructure for protection, as sites of encounter, contact and business, and for personal care. Infrastructural violence – the threat of petrol bombs and stones thrown at the car in the vicinity of the Gautrain, or the lack of access to bathroom facilities during a 12-hour shift in Manhattan – therefore expands our understanding of the ride-hailing industry enmeshed in globally observable urban conflicts.
Silvia Danielak is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and USIP-Minerva Peace and Security Scholar. In her research, Silvia focuses on socio-spatial planning in the context of violent conflict and disaster risk. Her previous research on infrastructure and mobility, natural hazards, and migration in urban conflicts has been published in Peacebuilding, Third World Thematics, and the Journal of International Migration and Integration, among others. E-mail: email@example.com / @s_danielak
Daily Maverick. ‘How to restructure SA’s minibus taxi industry’ (14 September 2020). https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2020-09-14-how-to-restructure-sas-minibus-taxi-industry/
Danielak, Silvia. ‘Navigating Urban Encounters: An Infrastructural Perspective on Violence in Johannesburg’s Taxi Industry’. Third World Thematics: A TWQ Journal 4, no. 2–3 (2019): 137–57. https://doi.org/10.1080/23802014.2019.1647795.
Mail & Guardian. ‘Latest Articles on Service Delivery Protests.’ (n.d.) https://mg.co.za/tag/service-delivery-protests/
News24. ‘Rhodes Must Fall campaign gains momentum at UCT’ (23 March 2015). https://www.news24.com/News24/Rhodes-Must-Fall-campaign-gains-momentum-at-UCT-20150323
Rodgers, Dennis, and Bruce O’Neill. ‘Infrastructural Violence: Introduction to the Special Issue’. Ethnography 13, no. 4 (2012): 401–12. https://doi.org/10.1177/1466138111435738.
TimesLIVE. ‘Sandton streets resemble war zone after attack on Uber drivers’ (7 September 2017). https://www.timeslive.co.za/news/south-africa/2017-09-07-watch–sandton-streets-resemble-war-zone-after-attack-on-uber-drivers/
Valentine, Gill. ‘Living with Difference: Proximity and Encounter in Urban Life’. Geography 98 (Spring 2013): 4–9.