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Uber Wants Johannesburg Police Protection

FILE - Riot police stand by an overthrown car during a demonstration by taxi drivers opposed to ride-sharing service Uber in Paris, June 25, 2015.
FILE - Riot police stand by an overthrown car during a demonstration by taxi drivers opposed to ride-sharing service Uber in Paris, June 25, 2015.

Ride-hailing service Uber on Tuesday asked Johannesburg police to protect its drivers and passengers from intimidation and harassment by local taxi drivers who feel the service is undercutting their trade.

The request follows recent protests outside Uber’s offices in Johannesburg, where dozens of taxi drivers gathered Friday to demand that the same license legislation for metered taxis be applied to Uber, which is also embroiled in a licensing dispute in Cape Town, where traffic officials have impounded more than 200 of the company's vehicles.

The quarrel is the latest in a long string of altercations between the San Francisco-based company, regulators and rivals across the world. The company was forced to suspend its popular Uberpop service in France until a constitutional court decides on the legality of the service later this year.

According to Johannesburg police, several Uber passengers reported being pressured into taking metered taxis instead of cars they had hailed via Uber’s Smartphone app.

Guesthouse manager Karin Abrahams says several men recently followed her as she attempted to get into the Uber car she had hailed outside a train station in the city's business district.

“They basically chased [the Uber driver] away," she said. "They said, ‘Our fight is with Uber members, not with you; you cannot get into this Uber taxi.’ I do see their point of view, but I also have the right to choose who I want to travel with. They need to know it is a business they are running.”

The verbal threats and harassment from metered taxi drivers, “only underlines why people are increasingly choosing safe, reliable alternatives like Uber,” the company wrote in an online statement.

Local taxi driver Petros Mhlongo sees it differently. He says Uber fares are unrealistically low, making it impossible to compete and leaving confrontation as the only way to deal with the issue.

“At the end of the day ... we need to sit down and solve the problem, so who do you sit down with? They just come and impose their own regulations," he said.

"It is not that we do not like them; we like them, especially the technology part of it," he added. "But in terms of prices, it is bad. At weekends, working overnight, I would make $80; I can hardly make $40 a night of late.”

Uber has amassed its $41 billion valuation, expanding into 57 countries in six years largely due to its ability to circumvent the tightly regulated taxi industry. In South Africa, Uber users requested 2 million rides in the first half of this year, compared with 1 million in all of 2014, according to company statistics.

Despite its cheap fares and seasonal deals, Uber caters only to South Africans equipped with a Smartphone and credit card. The majority of South Africans travel by minibus taxi, an industry loosely valued at $3.7 billion that transports an estimated 15 million people daily, but is saddled with a reputation for reckless driving and decrepit vehicles.

Taxi cartels, however, vie for routes, with turf wars sometimes resulting in violence. Several taxi drivers were attacked and murdered earlier this year.

Uber maintains that incidents involving their cars are isolated.