Carlton Centre in central Johannesburg was built in the early seventies. The Wimpy Bar on the viewing deck of the fiftieth floor became in 1975 one of the few places where races could mingle. Some disgruntled customers complained and so interracial seating was made illegal. Wimpy responded by removing the seats, resolving the problem and – more importantly – allowing all races to spend their money on their Wimpy burgers.
(Capitalism is not always colour blind but it has a marked preference for the green of the US dollar.)
Since the end of apartheid, central Johannesburg has gone from being an exclusively white city to being a black city. Despite impressive architecture much of the central business district now looks run-down and scruffy; so much so, in fact, that central Johannesburg – aka Jozi – is not included on the tourist map they give you when you land at O R Tambo airport.
I was meeting a friend from Swaziland at Park Station. The area is dangerous and after dropping me off, my Uber driver waited for me to cross the road and go safely up the steps to the station before he drove away. He had told me he would be turning off his phone as he had no intention of seeking a fare in such a risky part of town.
My Swazi friend and I had a pleasant lunch on Fox Street and then we went our separate ways. I wandered across Gandhi Square, heading for Carlton Centre. The ground floors of the tower now form a big shopping mall, not very chic but at least safe, thanks to the many security guards.
I called an Uber from Main Street, on the south side of the mall. My GPS was not working too well and I didn’t see my cab until too late. No sooner had I climbed into the passenger seat than five stocky men blocked my door, opened the driver’s door and took the keys from the ignition. One of the men told me to stay in my seat. My driver, pale, frightened and resigned to the hijacking, told me to get out of the car.
I did not know what to do. A nearby taxi told me he would run be back to Maboneng – but at three times the Uber rate. I walked back to the hotel, just fifteen minutes away, but off Commissioner Street where it is wise to avoid the vagrants.
Back at the hotel, I asked the security guard what I should have done. “Nothing,” he replied. Alerting the police would have been a waste of time.
Uber charged me the minimum fare for the non-existent trip. I still don’t know what happened to my driver. Some Uber cabs have a panic button and there is an emergency phone number – but I doubt the hijackers would have allowed the driver to use his phone. Uber drivers tells me he may have been beaten up – or worse.
Taxi cab drivers resent Uber. Uber taxis are new (2011 is the cut-off date), well maintained, properly insured, safe and efficient. They charge a lot less than the run-down taxi cabs.
South West Township aka Soweto is a safer destination than central Jozi. In Soweto, everybody is delighted to see foreign tourists, even when we travel in Ubers.