WHEN the authorities announced that the state-owned Zupco would be the only entity allowed to carry passengers during the Covid-19 lockdown, for an illegal private transport operator Rueben Chinhema it felt like the end of the world for him.
Chipa Gonditi/Davison Mupeti
He knew he had to find a way to get back on the road, by hook or by crook. The need to fend for a wife and two children, still in primary school, was enough motivation for him.
Zupco is the only public transport service provider allowed to operate by the government since the inception of the lockdown, leaving thousands of private operators without a means of earning a living.
Chinhema has applied a film of dark tint on the car windows so that passengers are not seen at roadblocks. This, together with a fake letter, enables him to ply his normal routes. He generates enough money to bribe corrupt police officers manning the countless check points.
He says the idea dawned on him after he spent the first month of the lockdown at home in Rusape without any income. It was a time of trial and tribulation as he lived from hand to mouth.
“After spending the first month at home, l knew l had to come up with a way to take care of my wife and two little boys as l am the only person who works in my family,” he said.
“So l decided to link up with my friend who has a small garage in Rusape. For a small fee, he tinted my windows black and I then removed my number plates,” he said.
He was ready for the road once again. He was also ready for the challenges that come with the lockdown and its numerous checkpoints.
“I carry people from Rusape to Marondera but sometimes l proceed to Harare if l get enough passengers. At first, the roadblocks were a challenge but l was soon informed of ways to avoid them, for example the tint sometimes prevents the police from checking what’s inside my car, but l have to admit the tint is not 100% fool proof, which is where the bribing comes in,” he said with a smile.
“Life has taught me that the police will do anything for money, but now they are becoming more daring and asking for their bribes in US dollars. Where I can avoid a roadblock, I use a route to by-pass the checkpoint to avoid them, but this is sometimes not possible on the highway.”
Once in Marondera, he drops his passengers in residential areas to avoid the police and soldiers patrolling the streets.
For just US$1 a day, he hires a tout in the Dombotombo high-density suburb who lines up the passengers for him when he makes the round trip back to Rusape.
Chinhema and other illegal operators plying the Harare-Mutare route charge their fares in US dollars.
“We charge passengers in US dollars. A trip from Rusape to Marondera costs US$3 whilst from Headlands to Marondera it is US$2,” he said.
People have no choice but to pay because transport is not easily available, besides everyone knows how unstable the local currency is. We are also paying bribes in US dollars, so a US dollar fee is the only way to go”
His passengers do not observe social distancing in the tightly packed vehicle. A car designed to accommodate six passengers carries 12 to maximise on profit.
“Remember, I also have to think about the police officers and soldiers manning roadblocks,” he says, justifying the number of passengers.
A snap survey by this publication revealed that in other urban areas, the same trickery is employed by commuter omnibus operators who mainly ply inter-suburban routes, enabling people to move from one residential area to another. Using such modes of transport, many informal traders are able to buy fruits and vegetables at Harare’s Mbare market for resale in their outlying communities.
In the sprawling satellite town of Chitungwiza, transport problems have become a nightmare.The insufficient number of Zupco buses force passengers to resort to illegal operators.
“Zupcos here in Zengeza are not enough and they do not pick up passengers anywhere except at designated points so that is where we are cashing in as kombi drivers. In fact, we are even carrying more passengers than them (Zupcos) so the government should just bring us back,” a commuter omnibus driver, who plies Chitungwiza’s Zengeza-town centre route, said.
The driver also said social distancing is not observed in commuter omnibuses as that would erode profits.
“People here in Zengeza seem not to be fearful of Covid-19 as it has not killed people whom they know directly. As long as they have masks, social distancing is not a big issue. So as kombi drivers why should we worry about it also? We’re just carrying on as usual,” he said.
Passenger Association of Zimbabwe president Tafadzwa Goliath said the government’s monopolisation of the transport sector was forcing illegal operators onto the road as they seek to make ends meet.
“These kombi drivers are simply looking for money. The kombi sector has been one of the go-to places when it comes to employment in the country. Government’s plan of trying to monopolise the transport sector will only lead to the increase of more mushikashika (illegal transporters) on the roads.
As passengers, we do not care about Zupcos that much, all we want is to be able to travel. l was in rural Hwedza and kombis are carrying on as usual, even in places like Epworth, Kuwadzana and Norton these kombis are there,” Goliath said.
He lamented the high risk of Covid-19 infection in the Zupco buses as social distancing is not being observed.
“There is chaos in the buses as there are many packed in there. You get some people removing their masks and this will lead to the spread of the virus and this is something which should be addressed,” he said.
Local Government and Public Works minister July Moyo recently revealed that the future of kombis and other private transporters is not guaranteed after the Covid-19 lockdown.
Officials say the private minibuses are a nuisance on the road and must now be phased out.
But in the meantime, daring private transport operators will do anything possible to put food on the table — even if it means bribing the police at every turn.