Conscious Consumerism: Uber Rides in Cape Town

Darren Wong 25 October 2020
Image Credit: Darren Wong

Cape Town, or South Africa in general, has often been the subject of my readings as a Geography student – of a formative post-apartheid citizenship fraught with tensions. I was thus extremely excited to fully immerse in Cape Town’s environment and unique culture when I visited Cape Town for summer school in 2019. I knew I could not trawl TripAdvisor all the time just hunting for the best food, farmers’ markets and shopping destinations in Cape Town. Without speaking to locals on the ground and understanding the context of their stories, the significance of Capetonian’s experiences and way of life would be lost on me. A mere international tourist, one in millions of them, I did not want to misconstrue or reduce interesting interactions into run-of-the-mill, shallow observations.

Inviting strangers on the streets to have a cup of coffee with me was an idea I considered passingly, but wariness over safety concerns lingered as I awkwardly tried to avoid being trailed by people along the streets asking for spare cash (or in the case of us not having cash, to go to the nearest ATM machine to withdraw some!). Later on, after multiple Uber rides around Cape Town, it dawned on me that Uber drivers are a rich repository of fascinating stories and perspectives. Sitting on the front passenger seat, I would ease the driver into conversation with comments about the weather or food, before asking more about his life or certain issues in Cape Town and South Africa.

One driver had been to Singapore, my home country, for a rugby match more than 10 years ago. I joked that it was amazing because it is incredibly scary how many people think Singapore is a part of China or geographically located in China, to which he brightly replied that “It’s below Malaysia!”

Just usual Uber problems and the impatience typical of most millennials, I remember feeling quite peeved at another driver’s tardiness, but my unpleasant mood quickly gave way to intrigue when he started discussing the invasion of China into Africa on the business and political fronts. Possibly sparked by his observation that I am ethnically Chinese, he declared worryingly that “China is colonising Africa!” He then lobbed several quickfire questions at me about my knowledge of Singapore’s history – why is there a Chinese majority? – and China’s relations with Singapore in comparison to Hong Kong and Taiwan. “Colonise” was a strong emotive word to use, given South Africa’s colonial past. While the driver was not aware of any outright intrusion into South Africa territory, materially or immaterially, he suggested that China’s creeping influence was probably happening “behind the scenes”, with politicians and business owners siphoning money from China’s “riches”. This was an important reminder that regional and global geopolitics are closely intertwined with bodies at the intimate scale, including one’s sense of security and identity.

Many Uber drivers were in the ride-hailing service on a part-time basis for extra income. One driver I rode with to Hout Bay, a beach, worked as a marketing officer for an automobile company in the day while driving at night and on weekends. His goal was to purchase a car on his own to reduce his expenditure on car rental – it was inspiring to witness his commitment to attaining a better standard of life. A reflection of shifting economic aspirations within a broader, dynamic regional economy, I met two Zimbabwean drivers who came to Cape Town more than 10 years ago when they were young adults. Both left their families behind but when I asked if they regretted their decisions, it was a swift “No”. Sharing comparisons between Zimbabwe and South Africa, they pointed out the massive impact of the tourism industry has had on development in Cape Town, which has generated more employment opportunities.

The idea of “conscious consumerism” followed me throughout my time in Cape Town; an overseas experience should not be reduced to just museum-hopping or food-hunting.

Not all Uber trips were pleasant, for instance, I remember the fright of being charged £70 for a £3.50 ride. But I took away so much from something as ordinary and fleeting as a 20-minute Uber ride. The idea of “conscious consumerism” followed me throughout my time in Cape Town; an overseas experience should not be reduced to just museum-hopping or food-hunting. Between the domineering Table Mountain and Cape Town’s resilient postcolonial history, Cape Town had a fascinating geography that screamed of a rich culture and context – the ideals of modernity and progressiveness are embedded in its pursuit of equality as it moves on from its apartheid past, yet vestiges of racism and other axes of socio-economic differences continue to persist, internalised and perpetuated in actions and behaviours. Uber rides were one way to think about the authenticity and significance of our experiences in relation to our position, such as our socio-economic background, privileges, worldview and life experiences.