The fight against gender based violence (GBV) and sexual harassment is more of a daily war being fought by the women of South Africa.

The fact that women do not feel safe in their own country should be alarming to us all and what’s more, it requires action from us all in order to be effectively addressed.

Which is why it is alarming to key “to:@Uber_RSA” into Twitter’s search bar and see the allegations of harassment, violence and more being committed by Uber and Uber Eats drivers in South Africa as one scrolls.

But by contrast the Uber South Africa account is almost dormant with the last tweet from the firm as of time of writing being an announcement about Uber Connect.

On Wednesday this week, ahead of Heritage Day we were sent a press release from Uber Eats. Expecting this to be a press statement about the latest allegation of harassment by an Uber Eats delivery driver we were deflated to learn that instead it was a PR exercise about the food that South Africans like to eat.

This coupled with the lack of interaction on Twitter had us wondering how out of touch Uber was with the state of the nation, so we asked.

On Thursday morning we (virtually) sat down with general manager for Uber Eats Sub-Saharan Africa, Ailyssa Pretorius to find out more about how Uber handles allegations of harassment and GBV.

The process

Uber has a number of ways to lodge a complaint or report a security concern. All of this is accomplished within the app with varying levels of response depending on the issue at hand.

In 2018 Uber introduced the Incident Response Team which gives customers direct access to a member of Uber’s support team when dealing with safety concerns.

The Incident Response Team is set up globally so that no matter what time of day or night you lodge a complaint, a representative will call you back within minutes.

Now this is where some folks have expressed concerns about the Incident Response Team as you might end up speaking to a team member from the UAE rather than somebody in South Africa.

Pretorius tells us that the Incident Response Team is specially trained to deal with matters of harassment and gender based violence as best as possible.

“We also have a local law enforcement response team. That team is specifically setup with ex-law enforcement personnel who work with police for any incidents which require police investigation,” Pretorius tells Hypertext.

What is of comfort is details about how the local arm of Uber Eats deals with reports of harassment.

Once a report is received by the Incident Response Team, a courier’s account is immediately suspended pending an investigation.

“That is done so that there isn’t an opportunity for this sort of thing to happen again while we investigate,” the GM tells us.

Then the hard work of investigating the matter begins. Uber Eats looks at the GPS data, they speak to the customer and the courier and further action is taken from there.

“Should the customer want to lay a police claim we then bring in our law enforcement response team who will then work with the police to resolve the incident,” says Pretorius.

More than that, Uber Eats also has counsellors who can help victims of harassment or violence work through those incidents.

Pretorius goes on to say that she and the local team are hard at work behind the scenes working to make this process better.

We the people

Our conversation then turned to social media.

While advice is commonly given that customers should contact customer support before raging at a brand online, that doesn’t stop folks from calling a brand out in a very public way.

However, as social media has become more widely used as a marketing tool, these platforms have become yet another customer service portal.

Uber looks very quiet online, but Pretorius tells us that its team is massive and while it might not look like its responding online that isn’t the case.

The Uber Eats GM tells us that its teams will contact a user privately on social media to engage with them rather than doing so publicly.

We appreciate this sort of response as often a person can be inundated with responses online and being able to deal with a person that can help directly, and privately can make a world of difference.

But through all of this we cannot shake the feeling that Uber is a an American in South African clothing.

Think locally, act locally

Uber is available in 900 cities around the world and that gives the firm some insight that many taxi firms would quite frankly kill for.

But there is a danger to looking solely at data and not how that data is portrayed in the real world.

As you might have noticed, Uber’s pricing doesn’t fluctuate with the local petrol price. We’ve heard countless stories from drivers about struggling to engage with Uber and there is a sense that Uber doesn’t fully appreciate the challenge of operating in South Africa.

It’s all good and well to have local restaurants featured on your app, but when your local newsroom is directing South Africans to register to vote in the 2020 US elections or support California during the wildfires, but no mention of how the firm is tackling the scourge of gender-based violence by its own drivers, that sends a message that markets outside of the US are an afterthought.

Here Pretorius highlighted some of the considerations that Uber has made to make it easier for locals to make use of the service.

But even the GM admits that this is largely from a product standpoint with things like being able to pay for a ride in cash or featuring local restaurants in the Uber Eats app. As far as image goes, the brand has some work to do.

And that’s the important thing here – image.

If you ask us, the image we have of Uber is a company that it cut-and-pasted its US operations into South Africa with one or two tweaks.

Our country is unique and while Uber has enjoyed some success so far, we get the sense that folks have come to use it because the alternatives aren’t appealing. A grudge purchase if you will.

And the worst part about this is that Uber is a great service that not only makes the lives of citizens easier but also opens up employment opportunities.

We just wish that Uber, and other US firms operating in Africa would stop dipping a toe into the continent and embrace what it means to do business here.

Unfortunately for these firms, if they don’t shape up, Africans will replace them with better solutions and force them to ship out.