ARMED with batons, police officers disembark from a tinted vehicle running at full speed to block a honking pirate taxi in the heart of the city in a dramatic and dangerous move.
The targeted vehicle, a Toyota Wish, part of the family of vehicles mainly used as illegal taxis in the city, is driven at full speed with the driver oblivious of the danger posed to innocent bystanders in his needless drama with the police.
Less than 500 metres away, a small truck emerges from a corner with more baton-wielding police officers, legs dangling outside the truck sending more pirate taxi drivers into panic and driving as if their very lives depend on the escape.
In all the cat-and-mouse chase, it is the vulnerable hundreds of stranded commuters at risk and this hazardous act has been the order of the day in Harare since the police commenced an operation to decongest the city and seeking to arrest criminal elements using pirate taxis to target unsuspecting commuters.
Police said 4 769 motorists were arrested between 27 April and 4 May. In the wake of the police crackdown, the situation for commuters has become dire and going home for many has become dangerous, particularly for women and children who are exposed to potential harm.
“People can sacrifice to pay hiked fares, but even private transport is becoming increasingly scarce,” Lisa Muchadehama, a commuter from Chitungwiza’s Unit L said. “That is why I have to rush to a strategic place where there are no running battles between the police and touts.
Unfortunately, the only safe place to go is over three kilometres from the city centre. Motorists are charging between US$3 and US$5 for a trip to Chitungwiza while nearby routes require US$2. For Muchadehama and others, due to the transport crisis, they have to wake up at 3am to get cheaper transport that does not overwhelm the personal budget.
“I cannot sustain an extra budget and neither can I stand the physical pressure at the Zupco buses.” Those in formal employment, including Herbert Munhongowarwa (34), a legal clerk from Tafara, a suburb located 26 kilometres outside the city centre, the salaries they are getting have become meaningless. Before the clampdown on public transport, Tafara residents used to pay US$1 for a trip to town and in Munhongowarwa’s case, another US$1 to Avondale where he works.
This means Munhongowarwa will need US$6 to and from town, and a further US$2 from the city centre to work and back– in total US$8 per day. The figure translates to US$40 a week and US$160 a month and, considering his salary, his situation is then a classic case of punching above his weight.
“I had to request for an advance salary payment,” he says.
“I earn ZW$30 000 (US$180.73 at interbank rate) and already, it has become unsustainable.”
“I work for a law firm and am required to be at work by 8am. If I fail to make it by then, I may disturb court processes. The train is suitable for people who are not formally employed as they have no time restrictions,” he laments. Passengers’ Association of Zimbabwe president Tafadzwa Goliati says the government ought to liberalise the transport sector.
“Transport operators are pulling out and most buses are being deployed to highways that already have ample buses,” Goliati said.
“You can never rely on buses which you do not have. Zimbabwe should have a multi-franchise system that accommodates all transporters. This will ease pressure on the buses, most of them which are no longer fit for road service.”
Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) president Florence Taruvinga said the Zupco monopoly has failed and payment of decent salaries will help improve workers’ living conditions.
“Private players play a major role in transportation. If government closes the door for them, then the problem will persist.”
“Transport operators can manage to service their vehicles because money will be exchanging hands.”
Greater Harare Association of Commuter Omnibus Operators (GHACO) says it is engaging the government so private operators can be allowed to operate under a self-regulated association.
“The Zupco franchise provides a conducive environment to work in an orderly manner, but the same environment must be extended to private operators,” said Ngonidzashe Katsvairo, the GHACO secretary-general. He said legalising separate franchises will help operators control cashflows hence bringing meaningful financial returns to transport operators.
Meanwhile, the chase continues and police say they will continue with the blitz to bring sanity on the roads. Touts have not been spared the police blitz. One of them, Fredrick Mupamombe, says this is his source of livelihood, though illegal.
“We are facing the same problems, commuters and us,” Mupamombe said. “We implore government to bring back commuter omnibuses. At least they will aid Zupco buses and help reduce the transport problem,” he said.