Its 4PM on a Friday in Johannesburg and the traffic is building up. All of Johannesburg is going home, but the night is young for Cindy Mashao, a Uber driver. She picks us up from our Sandton offices, and lets us ride with her.
Uber is a technology company connecting riders with drivers through a smartphone app. Mashao owns a hair salon in Alexandra, a black township in Gauteng, but now, as part of the Uber network, she has, like her counterparts worldwide, the opportunity to be the CEO of her own taxi.
Mashao was one of Uber’s first female drivers in South Africa when she joined the network late last year. In just under two years of its operation in South Africa, 4% of Uber’s drivers are women. In the United States (US), the corresponding number is 14%.
“Given that the US as a country is significantly bigger than South Africa and Uber has been in the US for five years, South Africa being at this level is really exceptional and the growth possibilities are very exciting,” says Samantha Allenberg, Uber’s spokesperson.
Mashao expertly navigates the back roads to get out of grid-locked Sandton at this peak hour.
“I stay far away from Sandton [as far as possible] when I’m working,” she says. With most businesses operating in this affluent part of Johannesburg, traffic is always a nightmare.
Mashao is a live wire and brimming with stories. As we drive to her usual spot, which is a petrol-station in Morningside, she tells us that drunk customers are her favorite because they make driving exciting and the ride eventful. There is never a dull moment. Her passengers in the morning are usually stressed office-goers, so there is little room for friendly banter.
Its 4.30PM and we start in Morningside at the end of the ever-busy Rivonia road where she waits for ride-requests.
“Morningside is like home for me. It’s where I started,” she says as she greets other drivers, mostly male.
Listening to the radio on the commute all day ensures she’s clued in on the latest music and current affairs.
It helps her find common ground with her passengers. She learns a lot from them too.
“I got a recipe for beer from one,” she tells us excitedly.
Her phone has been unusually silent and we decide to drive around the area. She shows us her Uber app, there are four other cars in the area.
“You’ve got to be sneaky and clever to get requests,” she says cheekily.
An alert goes off on her phone and we’re off to pick up her first customer, in Bryanston.
Our first rider tells us of his amusing Uber mishaps as we drive to the upmarket Sandton City mall. He had once drunkenly requested an Uber van, which seats six and is used for larger groups, only to be greeted by a very confused driver looking for the rest of the passengers. We drop him off and Mashao jokingly tells him not to make the same mistake tonight.
We head to Mashao’s usual Friday night spot at The Waterford Shopping Centre in Fourways. As we pull into the center, a request goes off on her phone and we’re on the move again.
It’s 6PM and we pick up a teacher on his way to a school play. He’s in high spirits after a long week. “It’s Friday night so I thought why not? Uber always has your back,” he says.
There’s a power cut and the area is dark but Mashao expertly maneuvers through the traffic.
The calm and collected Mashao says her scariest moment was picking up a passenger from a wedding at The Cradle of Humankind, a World Heritage Site located 50 kilometers northwest of Johannesburg. It was 2AM and the road to the venue was a dirt track.
The Uber app had alerted the passengers about the driver’s profile. Seeing that they had a female driver arriving to pick them up, they had a bouquet of flowers waiting for Mashao.
“It made it worth it,” she says.
We stop at a garage in Honeydew as she reapplies her lipstick land freshens up in the restroom. It’s the only break she has had. We’re in a quiet area and there are no alerts on her phone.
Its 7PM and we head to Melville, a bustling area cluttered with bars and restaurants.
She makes a sudden U-turn as she receives a request. We fetch two 12-year-olds on their first date. We get off as they get in.
They hold hands in the back seat and steal coy glances at each other. We agree to meet Mashao in Melville after she drops them off.
“Fridays are usually busy, you guys must be bad luck,” she says with a laugh. It has been quiet but every moment is an adventure for Mashao.
The night is still young, filled with umpteen possibilities.