Zimbabweans are risking their lives delivering food on scooters and badly maintained vehicles in South Africa.

The drivers deliver food for Uber Eats which last year announced that more than half a million people had downloaded its app in South Africa.

For many immigrants in South Africa, food delivery is an enticing prospect, offering flexible hours and lenient background checks. People who don’t meet the requirements for the job, including undocumented migrants, can easily obtain fake licences, vehicle registration papers and roadworthy certificates. 

GroupUP reports that Sam, from Zimbabwe, was smuggled across the border in 2011, finding work as a labourer in the construction industry. In 2017 a friend encouraged him to join Uber Eats, which had just launched in Cape Town, but Sam had neither a valid licence nor asylum papers. “But there are people that can help you with all those particulars,” Sam told me. He estimated that just one in ten drivers on the platform had signed up with legal documents.

To join Uber Eats, drivers apply online. The signup page says: “Work on your schedule. Choose your wheels. Earn good money.”

Sam, who lives in Gugulethu, became an Uber Eats driver without knowing how to use a motorbike. He asked a friend for lessons, buzzing around a parking lot until he felt able to balance. On his second day at work he crashed in town, escaping without injury. A few months later, in Camps Bay, he spun out on a corner. His knee swelled to four times its normal size, he said, and he couldn’t work for nearly a month.

Since then, mercifully, he has not been in another accident, even though his current bike has a single mirror and dangerously smooth tyres. Most days he waits for orders on Kloof Street, where a group of mostly Zimbabwean drivers have claimed a section of pavement. They sit on wooden benches outside the Engen, sharing them with the car guards, or straddle their bikes, texting and listening to music. When their apps chime they grab their helmets and swing into the traffic, knowing that a customer is waiting.

Drivers can be penalised for late orders. In a typical day, they earn between R300 and R500. (Each company has different fee structures, but earnings fall within a similar range.) Out of this they must pay for their petrol, mobile data and vehicle maintenance; a large number rent motorcycles from private owners, pushing up their running costs.