The verb: to uber


While I have been away–about a year–Cape Town has embraced a new word: Uber. Like google, it is both noun and verb, but it is the latter form that has found its home in South Africa’s lexicon. I have concluded this because of three Uber encounters in as many days:

I met with a girlfriend who has two kids, each with competing after-school activities. That afternoon we drove to their school to fetch them. The older child had a ballet class that was 5km from school, and the younger one had homework to do. She sent the older one off to ballet in an “uber”, and took the younger one home to do her homework. Problem solved for the price of a fare.

Then, on Saturday afternoon I met my friends at a restaurant to watch the rugby. One of the husbands had arrived ahead of his wife.  When I asked him where she was, he told me he had “ubered’ there; she was arriving later with the car, and they would ride home together. Problem of two cars at one venue solved.

My third encounter with Uber-consciousness was early the next morning outside my apartment. Frustrated residents one block over, unable to find parking the night before due to an influx of cars (it was the World Cup Rugby quarter final between the Springboks and the All Blacks), had parked their car outside the pedestrian gate of my building. Checking that the gate would open and no one’s exit or entry would be blocked, they locked their car and went home. At 5h30 the next morning my neighbour, who was rushing off to an appointment, couldn’t get his moped out of the gate. He sat on his hooter, probably waking the entire block, hoping this would alert the owner of the offending car. When no one showed up, he knocked on almost every door of my building checking to see if anyone had a guest who had parked him in. This is not the way to make yourself popular the morning after a dispiriting rugby defeat by the All Blacks. Desperately frustrated and angry, he went to his flat and fetched a jar of peanut butter. Then he went downstairs and smothered the greasy paste over every window of the errant car. Later that morning I was packing away my possessions in the garage, when the couple came out to their car. Their dismay and anger at having their vehicle vandalised was understandable. Spotting me in my garage, they asked if I knew who had done this dastardly deed. I told them who it was and explained why my neighbour had got so upset. The female of the couple said, “But we would have paid for him to uber to his appointment if we had known!” I just smiled, thinking that if she had left her phone number on the car it might have prevented an entire building from being awoken at dawn and a frustrated moped driver missing his appointment. But there it was again… that uber word.

Uber Technologies Inc. is an American company headquartered in San Francisco. They market the Uber smartphone app which enables users to order an Uber driver to transport them, rather like a taxi service but using the driver’s own car. The company, which launched in 2009, is now said to be worth US$50 billion. The service is available in 58 countries and 300 cities.

Public transport in South Africa has a sorry history. In the early seventies, as a young teenager, the only public transport on offer was the train which I rode home from school.  Appended to both ends of the journey was a long hot trudge to and from the station. Things have vastly improved since then, with the MyCiti bus system, for example. But for a chaotic city like Cape Town, where everyone is rushing about trying to fit too much into one day, especially for busy children who are confronted with so many activities it surely makes them dizzy, the bus is not the solution. And mothers would be very unlikely to put their children into metered taxis in South Africa due to the uncertainty of the fare, and fear for their safety. Enter Uber.

When the infrastructure is found wanting, clever entrepreneurs invent solutions using the advancements of technology. By 2013 there were 59 million cell phones in South Africa, being used by a population of 50 million. The lack of land lines in the country, especially in rural areas, led to an unprecedented uptake of mobile phones, leapfrogging the traditional, inefficient telephone service being mismanaged by the parastatal Telkom.

Cape Town is quite a small city, and Uber is the obvious solution for this public-transport-challenged and traffic-congested place. But, more importantly, it is a very trendy city; Capetonians love to glance up from their iPhones and Samsungs and proudly state “Oh, I ubered here… didn’t you?”.

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