Zupco: Sweet programme leaving sour taste

BY TATENDA NYAKUFUYA

The irony is not lost that the public, whose funds are used to support the grand scheme called Zupco, have no idea how much of their money is currently being used to sustain the programme.

Intricate financial details of the whole Zupco scheme are interestingly only privy to an elite few. Parliament, which is supposed to be a bulwark against long fingers dipping into public coffers, has tried in vain time and again to get clarity on the cost of the scheme.

These attempts have curtly been met by at best murky responses from successive government officials. The scheme is obviously bleeding the fiscus without clear visible benefits.

The whole scheme is shrouded in secrecy. The number of privately owned buses contracted under the scheme is not publicly known. Granted, a scheme that brings benefits to the public should be transparent so that it can properly be applauded.

However, this has so far not been the case with Zupco. Authorities have tried to put lip-stick on the scheme, claiming that it is “bringing sanity” to the roads.

A cursory glance on the jam-locked roads, however, does not show any signs of such sanity, months after the scheme was introduced. If at all, madness now reigns supreme on our roads.

A good number of the privately owned buses under the scheme are mere moving ramshackle metals defying their lifespans. They billow clouds of thick smoke that nearly render visibility to zero levels in broad daylight.

Several of these have been involved in accidents mainly caused by poor braking systems and pathetic maintenance routines.

Operators are always pushing for payments for their services which invariably tend to come late and with their values partially eroded by the rising market rates. As they wait for their payments, their vehicles continue to stagger on the roads with overdue service dates.

For the commuters, the number of queues that swell towards day end at various bus termini across the country point towards a transport crisis of epic proportions.

As the evening progresses into the night, long snaking queues of desperate commuters are visible on every road leading towards the high density areas that are serviced by Zupco buses.

Tragically, present in the home-time queues are several police officers in their full official attire, who incidentally would have spent their day chasing people from the same pick up points they themselves use after knocking off.

The Zupco scheme is not coping with the numbers and urgent action needs to be done to save these stranded commuters. It has left a sour taste on both its operators and users.

Most of the commuters using Zupco buses are having to rise early in the morning in order to be on time for work. A number of women have also reported being fondled, harassed and abused in the queues by perverts under the cover of the dark mornings or nights.

Some women have even gone to the extent of advocating for separate buses for females.

Sad images of women trying to jump in through windows have even found their way to the gleeful eyes of social media users. Women are suffering abuse both on the buses and on social media. It is a pitiful sight that requires empathy from the authorities.

Meanwhile, away from bus termini congestion madness, we have gone back full circle to the age of the Peaugeot 404s but now in the shape of various Toyotas dubbed the mushika-shika vehicles.

These risky speed merchants are modern day cowboys of the roads. They will brook no interference from any vehicle ahead of them, even the oncoming ones. Each trip on these cars is a near-death experience for many as these drivers seek to capitalise on the number of trips they can do during the peak hours.

Most of these mushika-shika vehicles are being driven by former kombi drivers who have adapted to the ban on the larger regulated kombis by simply switching to these smaller vehicles.

Some corporates, seeing the deficiencies of the Zupco scheme have opted to use private hire arrangements with kombi owners. These companies got an electric jolt a couple of weeks back when one widely quoted police spokesman speaking from his ivory tower inadvertently put a blanket ban on all staff buses not affiliated to Zupco.

A follow up press statement from his superiors put the lights back on and cleared the air the very next day. This was just a single demonstration of how unclear the whole scheme is even to those supposed to be monitoring it.

It is high time the government critically analyses the plight of the urban commuters.

The Zupco scheme might have noble goals from a socio-politico perspective, but has deficiencies that are causing untold harm to commuters.

Most are arriving late to and from work. The average time spent between parents and their children daily has subsequently drastically been cut and parents are not able to observe changing patterns in their children and are at times even noticing drug use in their children at very late stages.

Years after dumping the one party policy in the country, politicians have another policy that urgently needs to be dumped.

The single umbrella operator policy has no place in the 21st century and needs to be disbanded. It is an inefficient carcass that defies business logic and is unsustainable.

Granted, if the cash drip from the state coffers were to be disconnected for a week, the whole system would not generate enough revenue to sustain itself. Zupco without access to state subsidies would collapse in the same manner it has done over and over again in the past decades and there is a need to balance the act of social goals and business activity by a vibrant private sector.

There is absolutely no need to continue over-burdening the taxpayers in the country as the downside to it is that the companies whose taxes are being stretched to sustain the whole Zupco scheme might end up in financial doldrums themselves literally taxed to death.

The Zupco scheme is supposed to bring low cost travel and convenience particularly for the urban populace. Sadly, it has brought neither.

Commuters are having to fork out more when they use the illegal taxis than they would have used on regular registered vehicles. The stretching queues have also led to increased congestion on the roads as motorists meander their way through hordes of desperate transport seekers.

Arguments have always been pushed that kombis were becoming a menace on the roads. There is some truth in that proposition.

Some kombi drivers are maniacs on the road, but banning kombis has not removed the maniacs from the same roads. It would be better if laws were promulgated that removed the bad drivers off the roads rather than the vehicles they operate. If the kombi ban were to be extended forcing the kombi drivers that are still out of work to move into the conventional buses, what would be done next when they start behaving in the same manner they used to do with the kombis? Ban the buses?

Nyakufuya is a businessman and an ex-banker.