The proliferation of mobility business during the COVID-19 pandemic in South Africa
Mengnjo Tardzenyuy Thomas
Tardzenyuy Thomas, Mengnjo. 2021. The proliferation of mobility business during the COVID-19 pandemic in South Africa. MoLab Inventory of Mobilities and Socioeconomic Changes. Department ‘Anthropology of Economic Experimentation’. Halle/Saale: Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology.
Download via DOI: https://doi.org/10.48509/molab.6667
On March 5 2020, the first case of COVID-19 was recorded in South Africa from a male patient who had just returned from Italy. By October 30, there were 725,452 total confirmed cases and 19, 276 deaths, the highest in Africa. South Africa’s response to contain the spread of this virus has been drastic. On March 15, President Cyril Ramaphosa declared a national state of disaster, which was immediately followed by international travel bans on foreign nationals from high-risk countries, such as Italy, Iran, South Korea, Germany, the United States, the United Kingdom and China. South African citizens were advised to refrain from all forms of travel to or through identified high-risk countries. Travelers from medium-risk countries — such as Portugal, Hong Kong and Singapore — were also required to undergo high-intensity screening. Shortly after, the president declared a 21-day national lockdown. This lockdown was characterized by immobility, as all shops and businesses, except for essential services, were temporally shutdown. This state of affairs paved the way for a re-emergence and proliferation of alternative “mobility businesses,” which made use of digital applications.
The use of Uber for Business as a means of transporting essential services workers: The case of MultiChoice Company
Faced with COVID-19 immobility measures, such as the 21-day lockdown, major South African companies that produce or distribute essential goods and services had to seek other alternative mobility means to facilitate the distribution of their goods and services on one hand, and ease the mobility of their employees to and from work on the other, since mobility via public transport was limited. In addition, most public transport vehicles lacked social distancing measures, and as such, many companies did not want to expose their employees to the dangers of contracting the pandemic.
A typical example here is that of MultiChoice Company, a South African entertainment agency that provides entertainment, news and sporting events to more than 19 million households across 50 countries. In the wake of lockdown, MultiChoice needed a solution to bring their essential employees to work. Television played a vital role during this period in keeping the people informed, educated and entertained, and as such, its services were considered “essential,” which were allowed to operate during lockdown. It was therefore against this backdrop of ensuring a safe and reliable way of transporting its employees that MultiChoice co-created a solution with their workplace forum around the offering of Uber for Business.
Uber for Business is a software application managed by Uber, the American ride-hailing giant that offers vehicles for hire, food delivery, package delivery, couriers and freight transportation. During lockdown, Uber for Business allowed MultiChoice to create an Uber company account, which its employees connected to using their own accounts to request a ride. Rather than paying for the rides from their personal accounts, they were charged to a central business account.
Mark Rayner, the CEO of MultiChoice, explained the underlining the relevance of Uber for Business in his company. “In setting up a commute program, we want to know that the right people are using it and they’re using it to go to the right places and do the right kinds of trips. The tool set that Uber for Business provides is a very competent solution. It gives us a close eye on all the costs and the control we needed to do,” he said.
Uber for Business was made available to the company’s essential workers at all hours. It offered a visually more sanitized way for them to travel using the companies account. Administrators at MultiChoice had the backstage access and control over trips and expenses of their employees. In this light, they were able to set a maximum number of trips per employee, for specific routes to and from the workplace for specific business units. Uber for Business promised to provide service with security and comfort. Employees could order a ride in the time frame that they needed it to perform their company’s essential services to the public whenever the need arises.
Uber delivery app for businesses
In tandem to the above, Uber launched a delivery solution paid service for South African retailers to deliver essential goods to their customers during lockdown. This service was introduced due to the increasing demand for essential items by people from their homes. This app provided businesses of all sizes with a delivery solution for their customers in that businesses that needed to provide a delivery service to their customers only had to sign up, and then it immediately started to offer their deliveries from supermarkets, grocers and pharmacies. This app provided a platform where businesses could also manage multiple orders with one account and track their deliveries in real-time, thereby ensuring that their customer deliveries arrived on time and intact. These deliveries were made by Uber once any order was placed by a retailer using the service.
Alon Lits, the General Manager of Uber Sub-Saharan Africa, stated: “Today Uber is offering a delivery service for businesses, leveraging its logistics technology and network of drivers to provide retailers and businesses with a seamless way to offer their customers delivery”. Uber had over 13,000 registered and professional drivers with the necessary permits, who were authorized to travel during lockdown to deliver services on behalf of their partners.
Government’s regulatory policy on the operation of Uber during lockdown
Uber-related services were authorized to operate during the 21-day lockdown, between 5:00 AM and 10:00 AM, and between 4:00 PM and 8:00 PM, only for permitted travels to perform essential services and other emergencies when the need arose. The Uber app was made available only during the national government’s restricted operating hours and passengers were limited according to the carrying capacity of the Uber as follows: UberX, UberGO, UberBLACK, UberASSIST and UberVIP, a maximum of 1 passenger; UberXL, a maximum of 2 passengers; and UberVan, a maximum of 3 passengers
The introduction of Bolt Business Delivery
Beside the use of Ubers, Bolt, a South African ride hailing firm, introduced a “Bolt Business Delivery” during lockdown. According to Gareth Taylor, the country manager for Bolt in South Africa, this service was introduced for the following reasons: “to make sure that drivers on the Bolt platform can continue to earn a living safely, and to help businesses selling the essential products defined by the lockdown regulations to get orders to their customers quickly and safely”. It connected businesses with drivers on the Bolt platform.
Bolt operated in more than 30 cities across South Africa. During the 21-day lockdown, the Bolt Business Delivery was authorised by regulations to operate between hours similar to the ones stated above. Essentially, the Bolt Business delivery was meant only for those businesses selling essential goods, such as food or medicine to facilitate deliveries within the authorized time to their customers.
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