FAMILIAR with the hustle, bustle and congestion of their city, Harareans travelling into the town centre were greeted by an eerie silence on Wednesday morning. The reason was simple: The police had marshalled their resources to launch a ruthless, nay brutal operation aimed at ridding the city of the menace of touts and rank marshals.
Report by Stewart Chabwinja
The operation had magic bullet efficacy. Gone were the all-too-familiar “Mbare, Mbare, Mbare!” cries, or “DZ yese!, yese DZ!” from touts who have become an integral, if acutely annoying, part of life in the city.
There were no customer wars in which touts literally fought over, or dragged commuters into their kombis; no “Formula One” driving stunts. Ditto traffic congestion –– at least for the most part.
It was a job well done by the police on the surface of it –– never mind how long the sanity will last.
Yet the police’s action raises pertinent questions, not least being to what extent is their motto “Pro lege, pro patria, pro populo” (for the law, the nation, and the people) still their guiding principle?
What is shocking about this sorry affair is that it eventually took the assault of soldiers by the touts who had become a law unto themselves to rouse the police from their slumber.
The cops were content to fold their arms and watch despite a deluge of recent media reports suggesting thugs and their bosses, allegedly aligned to Zanu PF, had taken over the city’s taxi ranks and were living large on the proceeds of extortion –– illegally collecting protection fees from kombi operators.
The ZRP’s hands-off approach was epitomised by Harare police spokesman Chief Inspector James Sabau who had the gall to declare the police would not interfere because it was the bus operators who initially invited the marshals!
“They (kombi operators) should find a way of dealing with their rank marshals,” Sabau declared.
A wake-up call indeed. To imagine all along the public thought the police had a duty to be proactive in the interests of their duty of maintaining law and order.
Two weeks ago a Zanu PF chairman was assaulted by touts for confronting them after they increased their illegal fees, and banned some buses for leaking information to the media.
A tout was even quoted as saying: “We have more power than the police.” Clearly the Zanu PF thugs were becoming a Frankenstein monster, but police remained largely uninterested.
Sabau again: “We intend to meet all stakeholders this week… come up with a tangible solution… There is an outcry now because the touts increased what they charge hence (Kombi operators are) calling for our help.”
Then last Friday rank marshals assaulted two soldiers in uniform at a city bus terminus after they tried to defend commuters. Come Sunday, about 20 soldiers indiscriminately beat up touts, rank marshals and the public at a commuter omnibus rank in vengeance.
That finally did it for the ZRP. After the soldiers were assaulted, the police launched its anti-tout operation, arresting 308 rank marshals and touts in the crackdown in the central business district.
Police spokesperson Oliver Mandipaka sang a fresh tune: “The exercise is simply to ensure that there is no breakdown of law and order in the city. We received numerous complaints from commuters, shoppers and people doing business in town to do with the behaviour of the touts and that’s what necessitated this.”
So the police were acting in the public interest after all. Then, unwittingly, Mandipaka’s dead giveaway: “It’s uncalled for, for members of the public to attack uniformed forces,” he said. “It’s not good.”
But did it have to take attacks on soldiers for police to do their job?