The tuk-tuk industry in Melville has been bustling since 2010. With the entry of competitors such as Uber and Taxify, some drivers are getting creative in order to carve out a living for themselves and their families.
TWO BLUE blue tuk-tuks are parked at the back of the Melville Spar parking lot on Main Road. The harsh October sun beats down, transforming the small three-wheeled vehicles into something resembling a baking oven. Innocent Mbonane sits inside one of the tuk-tuks, sweat dripping down his face while he waits for his next customer.
An elderly woman walks towards Mbonane and his colleague, Nicholas Masondo. She holds a walking stick in one hand, and gingerly pushes a trolley filled with the groceries she’s just bought, with the other. Mbonane rushes to her aid and pushes the trolley the rest of the way.
PATIENCE: The heat wears Innocent Mbonane down as he waits for his next customer in the Melville Spar parking lot.
Vuyelwa Fikeni patiently waits while Mbonane loads her groceries into his tuk-tuk. She’s radiating with an infectious, happy energy. Just before she climbs into the vehicle she says, “I have been using tuk-tuks for years!” Mbonane climbs behind the wheel and whisks her off to The Village complex where she lives in Westdene, a mere four-minute drive from the Spar – too far for her to walk with her groceries, but close enough to use a tuk-tuk.
A few minutes later, Mbonane returns, carrying another passenger. Bridget Kamangira has been using tuk-tuks as a fast means of transport for five months to travel between work and home. “Uber is expensive but tuk-tuks are cheaper,” she says.
GOING NOWHERE: Tuk-tuks parked on Melville’s 2nd Avenue on a quiet Friday afternoon.
Mbonane drops Kamangira, parks his tuk-tuk next to that of Masondo’s and again waits for his next customer. He says that this can take up to an hour as he settles into the spacious back seat of his blue tuk-tuk and takes a sip of water. Mbonane has been driving for e-TukTuk for two years and encouraged Masondo to join as a driver three months ago.
Tuk-tuks hail from South East Asia and first came to South Africa in the early 2010s, as reported by the Gauteng Tourism Authority. They have been part of Melville’s fabric since e-TukTuk was started in 2013 by a resident and restaurant owner in Melville, Deon Fourie.
David Thorpe is a director of e-TukTuk along with Fourie. He says, “Deon is a very community minded guy who loves Melville and the surroundings. He and a group of people looked at ways of kind of improving security. It got to a stage where the students weren’t really going out. [They] looked at different opportunities and saw that maybe a tuk-tuk in the local community could be a cheap and efficient mode of transport to drive the students around. So they managed to get a hold of one tuk-tuk and launched it, and it was a massive.”
HOLD ON! Tuk-tuk driver, Ali Muyita, spends his days ferrying strangers and friends in his yellow three-wheeled vehicle around Melville, Johannesburg.
BRRR: A tuk-tuk speeds up 7th Street, Melville to pick up a new customer.
Tuk-tuks differ from e-hailing services in that they travel short distances. Thorpe explains: “Similar to a taxi association where they will get a route, we have an area. So Melville in the middle and it’s a seven-kilometre radius.” The drivers charge a base fare, often of around R20, which is paid in cash, and add to that depending on the distance travelled. Customers can either flag down a tuk-tuk on the street or call a driver to come pick them up – either by calling a call centre, or by calling the driver directly, depending on the type of tuk-tuk the client decides to use.
A few metres up the road from the Melville Spar parking lot, at the corner of 2nd Avenue and Main Road, three yellow and black tuk-tuks are parked. Their drivers are standing against the wall of the corner shop, deep in conversation. Like the e-TukTuk drivers, they also await the call of their next customers.
Ali Muyita is an asylum seeker from Uganda who first started driving a tuk-tuk in 2013. Although Muyita essentially offers the same service as that offered by Mbonane, he is an independent tuk-tuk driver, registered under the Auckland Park Tuk-Tuk Association (ATTA). Started in 2015 and headed by a chairperson, a vice-chairperson and a secretary, ATTA has around 60 drivers operating mostly around Melville and Auckland Park.
Chairperson of ATTA William Maitsa says the drivers pay a joining fee of R500 and a monthly fee of R300 to the ATTA. “This money is used when someone has an accident. We will try and assist him as a group.”
In reality, however, Muyita says he pays around R4 500 in fees each month. He is also a member of the Faraday Taxi Association (FTA) and the Johannesburg Community Taxi Association (JCTA) and has to pay a rental fee to the owner of the tuk-tuk that he rents.
CHARGED UP: A tuk-tuk driver keeps his phone close in order not to miss any call.
According to Maitsa, the taxi drivers in the FTA marginalise the ATTA drivers. “They don’t want us to prosper. They keep on fighting with us. We give them money to cool them down.” He says the drivers also pay money to be part of the JCTA in order to use their routes.
Maitsa says when a driver signs up to ATTA, they can seek out tuk-tuk owners to rent from. According to Thorpe, because the tuk-tuk market in Johannesburg has been flooded, the price of a new tuk-tuk has increased from R30 000 in 2013 to R52 000 in 2018. As such, many drivers aren’t able to buy their own tuk-tuks and instead rent from the tuk-tuk owners. Maitsa, who owns four tuk-tuks himself, says, “The owners buy tuk-tuks from a company based in Northgate. We buy them new. However, if someone comes across a second-hand one, they’ll buy it.”
Getting into the tiny vehicle, it wobbles a little from side to side, giving rise to the tiniest fear that it may tumble onto its side. Inside, it is surprisingly spacious. On one side of the tuk-tuk, the plastic cover is zipped closed but on the other side, it is tied back, allowing the wind to sweep through, making the passenger think the driver is driving faster than he really is. The tuk-tuk feels strangely safe as the tar road zips by, nothing between you and the precarious edge of the tearing black seat.
The joys of riding in a tuk-tuk on a hot summer’s day can change as quickly as a Highveld thunderstorm kicks up. One minute, an e tuk-tuk driver is parked in the Spar parking lot and the next, a cloud breaks in the sky above. Rain slashes down, drenching the driver within seconds. He pulls away and drives into the parking lot below, in search of shelter. There he pulls over, the dim lights on this flimsy tuk-tuk struggling to shine while confined between the concrete slabs.
On 4th Avenue, the flappy sides of a yellow and green tuk-tuk fly angrily. Even the side that was closed lets loose – offering no protection to the driver who has abandoned his vehicle. A lone tuk-tuk can be seen hastily driving up and down Main Road but, for the most part, the tuk-tuks have lost their appeal at the thought of assaulting rain and wind beating the back seat of a moving tuk-tuk.
Muyita says no two days are the same, and you never know how many customers to expect, but business decreases during the winter months. The fear of the cold nibbling away at your face and body is formidable indeed.
Maitsa was a tuk-tuk driver himself but left to start driving for Taxify three months ago. “I recently left to begin driving Taxify but I’m still managing [ATTA]. I just wanted to up a grade.”
Muyita says he has seen around a 50% drop in his earnings since Uber and Taxify started operating in South Africa in 2013 and 2016 respectively. “When you’re not a citizen you don’t have a choice. I do want to drive for Uber and Taxify but I don’t have enough paperwork. Right now I’m using my driver’s licence from my country.”
According to the Taxify country manager for South Africa, Gareth Taylor, in order to sign up for Taxify, a driver needs a valid driver’s licence and a professional driving permit (PrDP). “We do not accept foreign licences,” he says. While Taxify drivers come from a variety of industries within South Africa, he adds, “We have not seen a substantially high increase of tuk-tuk drivers come onto the Taxify platform.”
Muyita puts in 14 hours of work on an average day and works six-and-a-half days a week. Despite this, he is always a friendly, outgoing guy with a broad smile. He works hard to send money home to his wife who lives in Uganda. “When you have a family it means you’re committed. You have to support them. You do your best, that’s why you work long hours.”
As a Taxify driver, Maitsa says there aren’t any issues between Uber or Taxify drivers and tuk-tuk drivers. However, like Uber and Taxify drivers, the tuk-tuk drivers experience problems with metered-taxi drivers. “In 2016 we had such problems whereby one of our tuk-tuks got burned completely. There are instances whereby if a tuk-tuk is driving customers close to the metered-taxi guys, they can harass and deny you from fetching your customers.”
Maitsa says they don’t have any issues with the e-TukTuk drivers as they’re essentially providing the same service.
FAMILY MAN: Ali Muyita works 14 hours a day, nearly seven days a week, to send R1 000 a month to his wife back home in Uganda.
At the Melville Spar parking lot, Masondo says things are not so rosy between e-TukTuk and ATTA drivers. “We have licences and PrDPs for driving, [while the independent tuk-tuk drivers] use fake ones.”
Thorpe says e-TukTuk needs an operating licence in order to legally put their drivers on the road. In order to obtain this licence from the City of Johannesburg, they need to have an office, a call centre, a certain area of operation and they have to submit their pricing per kilometre.
Howard Dembovsky is the chairperson of the Justice Project South Africa, a non-governmental, non-profit organisation dedicated to the improvement of road traffic law and its enforcement. He concurs with Thorpe that you need a professional driving permit (PrDP) when transporting members of the public for financial gain. On top of this according to Thorpe, tuk-tuk drivers currently need to have a motorbike licence and they need to display a tuk-tuk licence on their windscreen.
Thorpe says they have a fairly good relationship with the independent tuk-tuk drivers because many of the drivers used to work for e-TukTuk. Owner-drivers would pay a rental to use a tuk-tuk each month while paying it off. “The owner-drivers started to pay off the vehicles and they had to pay to use our licence. One driver left and said ‘No, I’m not going to rent the vehicle out daily’. It started off as one driver and, to be perfectly honest, we weren’t particularly that worried. Then literally overnight one went into two, into three, into four. All of the sudden the market, to where we are now, is flooded.” Whereas ATTA has around 60 registered drivers, e-TukTuk went from having 16 tuk-tuks to having around eight tuk-tuks in its fleet today.
Thorpe says they have tried numerous channels to address this problem. “We went through many channels to get rid of the illegals – the police, the City of Johannesburg, the transport department, the chiefs of the police – and everybody always said, ‘Yes, we must clean this up, we must sort this out’, and something I can never put my finger on is how it never happened.”
COMMUNITY: Tuk-tuk and motorbike drivers relax on 2nd Avenue in between ferrying customers around Melville.
Spokesperson for the Johannesburg Metro Police Department (JMPD), Chief Superintendent Wayne Minnaar, says the tuk-tuk industry in Melville hasn’t been a problem. “We don’t have a record of accidents. If there were, it was very minor. From that point of view, we have no problem with the tuk-tuk industry.”
Minnaar says the licensing of tuk-tuks is the responsibility of the Department of Transport. He adds that tuk-tuk drivers will only get pulled over by JMPD officers when they’re driving recklessly, but according to him, there haven’t been any reports of tuk-tuks ignoring a red light or a stop sign. When the drivers do get pulled over, Minnaar says, “We only check if they have driver’s licences.”
Despite Minnaar’s praise for tuk-tuk drivers, the owners and tuk-tuk drivers operating within the legal framework are concerned that the operation of tuk-tuks without the necessary licences may have devastating implications on the industry and, ultimately, their livelihoods.
At the end of the day, each player is trying one’s best to forge out a living. As Thorpe says, “The driver trying to make his way, the call centre agent, me trying to make my way – there are many different people along the way just trying to make it.”
While he is concerned about the job security of his drivers and the future of his small business, drivers such as Muyita worry about their livelihoods and far away families. His tuk-tuk is his only means to earn an income. He believes he doesn’t have another option and is simply doing the best he can with the resources available to him.
TIME LAPSE: How and when tuk-tuks came to Johannesburg.