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OPINION: Uber - Govt must wake up & smell the disruption

Since rocking up in South Africa in August 2013, Uber has disrupted. By the mere definition of its existence, it has shifted the way South Africans view and approach public transport.

For starters, it is not a taxi service. It is an application that you download on your phone. It acts as the intermediary between the drivers cruising around cities and the passengers looking for transport. So it's somewhere in between a taxi service and a technology company. This very concept is enough to challenge preconceived notions of how the industry has been established.

Within eighteen months of setting up shop, the company announced that it had created 2,000 jobs and was intent on creating 15,000 over the next two years. In May the company introduced UberHealth, an initiative in cooperation with Discovery Health, delivering flu vaccines to clients. It's also looking at introducing UberEats, a service that would allow people to have food delivered by Uber drivers. Then there's also UberRush, a delivery service that is being mooted.

The company is disrupting - not only the taxi industry, but in whatever other market it can. This has caught many people off guard. Most importantly, government has been found napping.

As Uber has publically argued, this is a classic case of regulation lagging innovation and the country's laws simply not being ready for the introduction of this service.

Gauteng Transport MEC Ismael Vadi has himself conceded this. In an interview on Talk Radio 702 he said, "At the moment there's a lacuna in the legislation between a metered taxi association and chartered services. It doesn't accommodate Uber from a legal point of view. In principle we've told them they have to register, and if not, they will not be allowed to operate. They'll be an illegal operator."

We know from experience in this country that changing any kind of legislation takes time, and a lot of it. The draft National Land Transport Amendment Bill hasn't even worked its way through the many layers of Parliament yet.

But there is no reason that our authorities should have been caught off guard. It is not the first time that innovation has struck the industry. The introduction of tuk-tuks to transport passengers from the Sandton Gautrain station was replete with its own set of complications and complaints. In fact, the Gautrain itself has served to disrupt the public transport industry, introducing a viable option for middle-class users who had previously dismissed any suggestion of leaving their cars at home.

Local authorities should also have foreseen the problems here at home by glancing at the long list of incidents across the globe over the past few years. South Africa is not the first country to experience exactly these issues around Uber.

The company's legal status varies around the world. Earlier this year, Uber was banned from operating in São Paulo following a court case. Many countries in Europe have banned or at least partially suspended the service. In South Korea, dozens of people have been criminally charged for operating an illegal taxi service. The service was banned in Delhi in India after a female passenger was raped.

In South Africa, protests against the service did not come out of the blue either. Since its introduction, vehicles were impounded in Cape Town for not having the correct public transport licences and the Metered Taxi Council called for it to be shut down. For the past few months, metered taxi drivers at OR Tambo International Airport have been intimidating drivers saying they don't have the correct licences to operate at the airport.

Authorities could not have been blind to the fact that this issue was going to reach a breaking point.

It is absolutely understandable that metered taxi drivers who are losing business have a case to make, that they are losing their livelihood because Uber is not playing by the rules and is unregulated. But in reality, it is no different to mom and pop shops being forced into closure because corporate retailers are edging them out with technology, efficiency and cheaper prices.

To deny Uber the ability to disrupt and to introduce innovation, will only stagnate the market. If there is a demand from the public for the product, then we should be allowed to make use of it. Government has a responsibility to introduce legislation that creates an environment for Uber to operate, but at the same time for the company to be regulated and kept in check. It should wake up and catch up with the disruption.

Mandy Wiener is a freelance journalist and author working for Eyewitness News . Follow her on Twitter: @mandywiener

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