On a sunny February morning in Johannesburg, Collin’s Bolt driver app flashed with a new gig: a 26-mile trip to Krugersdorp, a mining town to the west.

“380 rands [$24] fee, lucrative trip!” Collin whispered. But instead of accepting the trip, he took a screenshot of the customer’s details. Then, using a separate cellphone, he rang the passenger. “Look, I’m Collin, your driver. I canceled your trip deliberately,” he said furtively. “I can drive you from Johannesburg to Krugersdorp, same journey, for a reduced fee of 280 rands [$18].” The prospective client, likely tempted by the unexpected discount, quickly agreed.

Collin carries passengers for all three of the major ride-hailing apps in South Africa: Bolt, Uber, and Didi. He asked to change his name for this story out of a fear that ride-hailing apps might ban him from their platforms. He’s one of nearly a dozen South African rideshare drivers who Rest of World accompanied on long-distance trips conducted off-the-books. 

The drivers said they all use the apps to find clients, but prefer to book long-distance trips off the platforms to avoid paying a commission to the companies and increase their profits in a business that has become harder to sustain, due to the rising cost of fuel and other necessities.

“I can carry three passengers for five miles for just 9 rands [$0.60], but a liter of fuel now costs 21 rands [around $1.40],” Collin said. “We drivers now make agonizing losses per trip. Our schemes are about survival.”

Uber was the first ride-hailing app to launch in South Africa in 2013. The business model felt like a natural fit: Johannesburg and Cape Town had well-developed roads and a large client base, but also stubbornly high unemployment rates, providing a pool of potential drivers. But with increased competition between platforms and rising costs, drivers have increasingly found themselves struggling to make ends meet.

The companies have rolled out cheaper ride packages for passengers to try to drive user growth. In February 2021, Uber unveiled a countrywide roll out of Uber GO, a lower-cost alternative to its more upmarket UberX or Executive services, after trials in Port Elizabeth in 2017; Didi countered with Didi Go in May 2021. Bolt had rolled out Bolt Go in July 2020. These lowered the average cost of rides, but also reduced the amount that drivers earned. This has been compounded by rising prices — inflation came close to 6% in 2021, and fuel prices are up 35% over the last year February 2021 — which have squeezed margins. Drivers said they often make a loss on these rides.

Bolt South Africa typically charges a 23% commission on the final ride price. Uber’s standard service fee is 25%, while Didi charges a 13% commission.

Drivers told Rest of World that longer trips off the apps pay better, not just because commission fees are hidden from the platform, but also because the clientele often give more generous tips and become repeat customers. 

“Only new ridership clients call me for proper on-app trips. The high-paying, long-trip regular passengers in my diary now telephone me directly, bypassing the Bolt app,” Silas, a Zimbabwean migrant driver, told Rest of World. He regularly travels the lucrative 32-mile route from South Africa’s administrative capital Pretoria to the O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg.

Taking the trips offline is not without risks, since it turns off the apps’ GPS tracking, and means neither the driver nor the rider are insured by the platform in case of accidents, Nthabiseng Mokoena, Bolt South Africa’s spokesperson, told Rest of World.  

"The high-paying, long-trip regular passengers in my diary now telephone me directly, bypassing the Bolt app."

Mokoena said Bolt is unaware of private arrangements between drivers and riders. But Didi, which launched in South Africa in March 2021, said it is aware that some drivers find ways to connect with riders outside of the ride-hailing platform. “The moment we become aware of one of our drivers participating in any unethical activities, we remove them from our [app] immediately,” Carina Smith-Allin, Didi’s head of communications for sub-Saharan Africa, told Rest of World

Uber South Africa’s spokesperson Mpho Sebelebele said that drivers soliciting trips offline is not a regular occurrence on the platform: “Riders should report such incidents through the app,” she said. Sebelebele said that the Uber GO service helped drivers to earn a living in South Africa’s difficult economic situation, arguing that without cheaper services, fewer users would use the platforms.

People working on the ride-hailing platforms told Rest of World that despite the low fees and high costs, they’re also being forced into competition with new drivers. The unemployment rate in South Africa was 34.9% in the third quarter of 2021, and the barriers to entry in the ride-hailing industry are low.

The oversupply of drivers, the fact that passengers are also having to tighten their belts, and the financial strains of the ride-hailing platforms who often make huge losses while trying to build market share have all contributed to squeezing drivers, Christo Venter, a transport sector consultant and professor in civil engineering at the University of Pretoria, told Rest of World. “These three factors all reinforce each other to push prices down in general,” Venter said.

The frustration with low base fares as fuel prices spike could come to a head on March 22 when a major strike dubbed “national shutdown” is planned by drivers for services including Uber, Bolt, and Didi drivers in South Africa. The strike could see all leading e-hailing services frozen in cities across the country.

“(Our drivers) are coming to the party on the 22nd March,” said Duane Bernard, a labor organizer at Uber Eats South Africa. He claimed the ride-hailing companies are concerned with the plans for a strike and have been contacting drivers at Bolt and Uber Eats about raising fares or restructuring fees. “They say these things and never do. We´ll see,” said Bernard. He showed Rest of World, screenshots of communication sent to drivers in the past few days.

Uber’s Sebelebele said the company takes the concerns of drivers on the platform seriously and continuously explores ways of maximizing their earning potential.

However, the sustainability of the platform companies’ models could be tested by a class-action lawsuit launched against Uber in February. The case, brought by Mbuyisa Moleele Attorneys, was inspired by a ruling in the UK Supreme Court which affirmed that Uber drivers must be legally classified as workers instead of independent contractors. 

Leigh Day, the UK law firm that brought the initial case, is supporting Mbuyisa Moleele’s action.

"Uber South Africa is avoiding obvious labor issues by not hiring drivers as employees."

The case hopes to force Uber to recognize its South African drivers as employees, meaning that they would qualify for conventional workplace benefits. 

“Uber South Africa is avoiding obvious labor issues by not hiring drivers as employees,”  said Bernard. He explained that his group had been approached by Leigh Day to join the class-action lawsuit.

Uber South Africa’s spokesperson Sebelebele claimed, without providing figures, that the vast majority of drivers who use the Uber app say they do not want to be “employees” because they value the flexibility of the current arrangement. Those claims are based on feedback the company receives from regular roundtables it conducts with drivers in different South African cities where Uber operates.

Collin and Silas said that they weren’t aware of the lawsuit, but said they’d be keen to join when told about it — on the condition that their privacy was protected. The suit’s aims reflect Collin’s anger at his experiences with all of the ride-hailing platforms. 

“Uber, Bolt, Didi are ripping us off. The car is mine; the 21 rands [around $1.40] per liter fuel is mine; the airport tolls are on me; the app internet data is on me,” he said. “What does Uber, Bolt, Didi own?”