It was in the early hours of an evening in July when Tshepo Ntshangase rushed to his Hyundai Accent, parked outside his home in the Kwathema Township, an area east of Johannesburg. His neighborhood was known, especially in recent years, for late-night hijackings of ride-hailing app drivers, including the app he drove for, Bolt. Still, he had received a notification for a new ride request on his Bolt driver app and he took on the ride.
But what had come in as a ride request turned out to be a setup. Less than 20 minutes after the gig call, Ntshangase was shot dead. His money, mobile phone, and vehicle were stolen. No one knows if he was able to press the SOS button on his Bolt driver app, designed as a panic button to alert the Bolt Safety team. The assailants were never located or arrested, according to his mother, Ntombi Ntshangase, who told Rest of World that she wished her son had not taken the gig at Bolt. “He wanted to give his three-year-old daughter a better life, no one could stop him. He would risk taking trips late at night, although he knew how dangerous it was,” she said.
Concerns over this rise in crimes against Bolt drivers in South Africa, even in the face of the app’s SOS button, have resulted in drivers resorting to their own safety measures to stay alive.
Ten drivers who spoke to Rest of World said they’ve resorted to digitally crowdsourcing their own safety nets on WhatsApp, Facebook, and Telegram among fellow drivers. In various WhatsApp groups, drivers encourage one another to notify others in the group if they suspect one of them is in any form of danger, sharing their live locations so those close by can monitor their movements or come to their rescue. From morning to evening, hundreds of messages flood the groups with warnings of any suspicious activity on the roads and which areas to avoid.
Rest of World accessed a Bolt drivers’ WhatsApp group through one driver’s account to see how drivers interacted with and warned one another about dangerous neighborhoods, robberies, and scams. One driver sent a message to the group after reaching an area known for its high crime rates, along with a screenshot of his location to show the others where he was that evening. “Ku safe lana gents (is it safe here guys), I’ve gone to a new city?” he asked. Another guy in the same area responded, “Share your trip,” to keep track of his movements, in case he found himself in trouble.
Immediately, others in the group began sharing video and audio messages. One video was a message from a group of taxi drivers, warning e-hailing drivers to stay out of their service areas. The video showed several e-hailing drivers’ vehicles getting impounded, the owners’ whereabouts unknown and a voice shouting, “Ayaphela amagundwane (we are dealing with all the rats).”
The driver, who shared the video, sent a voice note, warning the group to stay away.
“Guys, stay away from Tembisa, Ebony Park, Rabie Ridge, Kaalfontein and Midrand, otherwise you’ll be sorry,” said the driver in Zulu.
Throughout the day, other messages popped up in the WhatsApp chat. Two other videos showed an e-hailing driver bleeding, his face swollen after being attacked, with the speaker asking if anyone was able to identify the victim. The other video showed a driver under attack during a carjacking by three men, whom he had picked up as clients. “Be careful guys, it’s dangerous out there,” came another warning message, after the videos.
In recent years, several attacks on ride-hailing drivers have been reported in parts of Johannesburg, resulting in hijackings, robberies and, at times, deaths. A number of these attacks have targeted Bolt drivers, and the company has acknowledged crimes against ride-hailing drivers and instances where deaths have been reported.
Safety concerns over e-hailing drivers are a global concern: In recent years, e-hailing companies such as Lyft, Uber, and Bolt have introduced safety features to drivers around the world, including SOS buttons and rider verification. In South Africa, Uber has introduced additional real-time ID-check facilities to discourage assailants from using existing driver profiles to commit crimes. This feature enables drivers to take a selfie prior to accepting rides, comparing it to the driver’s profile photo. Uber recently launched an audio-recording option for whenever a passenger feels unsafe. Bolt has not yet introduced this.
In South Africa, Bolt has established a partnership with local company, Namola, to build the in-app integrated emergency button. Takura Malaba, a country manager at Bolt South Africa and a company representative, also encourages drivers to purchase a physical Namola button that they can use, told Rest of World that the service guarantees drivers a call back from a representative at Namola within 90 seconds. In September, Rest of World took rides through Bolt South Africa, and five drivers demonstrated the system’s failure by pressing the SOS button. The 90-second response, guaranteed by Bolt, never came, they showed the reporter as they pushed the button.
“SOS by nature is a responsive initiative as designed in places like London, New York or Paris and that side response is tremendous,” e-hailing driver and activist Melithemba Nkuni told Rest of World. “The one on [South Africa’s] Bolt app is ineffective for the crimes that are faced by drivers because they need preventative means like proper vetting. However, note that the Bolt SOS in particular is a gimmick, it doesn’t function either and I would suggest you test it with a few drivers to verify this.”
Bolt spokesperson Mahlodi Molokane told Rest of World that the company launched its partnership with Namola in 2018. Bolt says Namola conducts a credibility assessment of the requests made, ensuring that dispatching and support is provided to those who require assistance. Malaba, the Bolt country manager, acknowledged reports of attacks on its drivers as a matter of national concern. “The activation of the SOS button also automatically alerts the Bolt High Priority response team about any incidents. They can then liaise with the South African Police Service after the incident to provide them with all the necessary data and information needed to pursue their investigations,” he told Rest of World. Molokane said there was no proof from either their own investigation or that of the police about whether these deaths were related to using e-hailing platforms.
Mavela Masondo, a spokesperson from South African Police Services, said police work with all crime incidents reported to them. However, he said, police treated all crime incidents the same and there was no specific crime code classifying e-hailing drivers as a separate group.
“Unfortunately there is no crime code in the police system that is referred to as violence against e-hailing drivers. May l request that you apply for access to information to enable our crime registra to conduct an analysis on murders reported in the province and to determine which ones are linked to e-hailing,” he said.
Nkosinathi Zwane, a Bolt driver and a spokesperson for Gauteng E-hailing Partners, a union for e-hailing drivers, alleged to Rest of World that five Bolt app drivers were reportedly killed in eastern and western Johannesburg in May alone. He said that while broader or official statistics on ride-hailing app drivers’ deaths are not made available by their companies, he has heard, anecdotally, of the attacks and killings of hailing drivers becoming more and more frequent.
“It’s now a war zone and a win-lose situation, the assailants know how we operate,” Norman, who asked to be identified only by his first name due to fear of losing his job at Bolt, told Rest of World. Norman responded to a night call on his Bolt driver app at around 10 p.m. on a Saturday in August. He drove to an abandoned building in Kwathema Township, where he was immediately surrounded by five men, he said. Instinctively, he locked the doors, reversed his car, and skidded away.
He immediately alerted others in a drivers’ Whatsapp group. Two drivers who happened to be in the area asked him to share his location. They met him at the location and accompanied him to the police to report the incident. Norman, like other drivers in his WhatsApp group, shares his location while working at night or in risky areas for others to keep track of his movements lest he encounter problems.
“The SOS button is just for decoration, no one ever responds when I hit it. Our WhatsApp group has become a backup where we help and support each other,” said Norman, who says he was also rescued by drivers in July when he alerted the WhatsApp group about being detained by minibus taxi drivers outside the Pretoria train station. He had traveled 80 kilometers to drop off a client when minibus taxi drivers stopped and accused him of invading their territory. One driver, who saw the group message, came and helped him pay a bribe of 500 rand ($28) for his release.
“Our drivers are being killed on a weekly basis, I know because we make contributions to bury them,” said Zwane. “Ditching the dysfunctional SOS button and using our own safety platforms on WhatsApp, Telegram, and Facebook to alert and rescue each other is the only way. But I guess death is the worst-case scenario.”