Stanely Mushava Features Correspondent
Harare roads are a site of life-threatening insanity. Kombi operators have taken anarchy to a new scale, disregarding traffic laws at every turn and placing the lives of passengers on the line.
The occasionally fatal clashes between kombi operators and municipal police seem far from over as 2016 sets in with an escalation of the madness.
During the past few weeks, running battles between the proverbial Jews and Samaritans in Harare and Chitungwiza left a blood trail on the festive season and caused substantial damage to property.
Allegations that the traffic arm of the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) has a love-hate relationship with lawlessness do not help the situation.
In several instances, traffic police officers have been arrested for bribery, an indication of the porous nature of the law enforcement dragnet.
“There is no way the police can fight ‘mushikashika’ (undesignated pick-up points) if they are interested parties,” said a kombi driver plying the City-Chitungwiza route who refused to be named.
The driver in the Seke bay at the Charge Office Bus Terminus supplied this paper with labels of commuter omnibuses allegedly owned by police officers, which he said were a regular feature at undesignated pick-up points.
In 2014, the Greater Harare Association of Commuter Omnibus Operators told a parliamentary committee on transport that half the number of commuter omnibuses was owned by members of the police force.
“Their kombis pick up passengers at undesignated points along Julius Nyerere Street in full view of officers enforcing order. As a result, some drivers feel they are losing out and vacate the bays to compete for passengers at ‘mushikashika,’” the driver said.
“As long as this continues, the ‘mushikashika’ will remain because police cannot fight against their interests. However, this is unfair for some of us who want to do things straight. It is as if we are being pushed into lawlessness by those who should be maintaining the law,” he said.
An undercover operation by the Harare Metropolitan Police, code-named Scorpion, saw a birthday girl being knocked down by a speeding kombi, a municipal cop thrown out of a moving vehicle by a fugitive kombi crew, at least one person died and eight others were injured, all in a day’s work.
Two days after the bloody skirmishes in the capital city, Chitungwiza descended into a war zone as kombi operators’ protest over a newly introduced $100 annual operating licence fee turned into a stone-throwing combat, with political activists implicated on both sides of the clash.
Meanwhile, the “mushikashika,” undesignated pick-up points, remain a stubborn feature of the capital city, pitting unruly kombi crews against baton-wielding and spike-throwing municipal cops and ZRP traffic police.
Harare and Chitungwiza residents told this paper that police and city authorities’ current strategies against traffic anarchy had proven ineffective and outdated.
“These clashes are not going to help anyone. Council will just risk people’s lives by chasing after kombis and using spikes but this will not change the problem,” said Pride Magara, resident in the dormitory town of Chitungwiza.
“I do not understand how many innocent lives it will cost for council to see that it is embarking on an unsuccessful mission. Enough accidents have already occurred from these chases,” he said.
He called for the traffic surveillance technology by the law enforcement agencies as a rational departure from the cat and mouse games.
“It is clear that some of the kombi drivers have no respect for traffic laws but the solution cannot be these chases because the police then endanger the lives of ordinary passengers,” said Magara.
“The vehicles have registration numbers. It is only a question of taking down the numbers and intercepting errant kombis at the next road blocks,” he said.
The deadly skirmishes of January 3 started when Harare Metropolitan Police officers deployed 10 officers at the corner of Julius Nyerere Way and Robson Manyika Avenue as part of Operation Scorpion.
More than 40 touts allegedly rounded up the 10 metro cops and attacked them using stones, cardboard boxes and metal objects.
Another Chitungwiza resident identified as Kingston said police needed to be people-oriented in the fight against lawlessness if unnecessary accidents are to be avoided.
He recounted an incident, which this paper could not confirm, when violence broke out because a police officer had skirmishes with a kombi crew rushing a woman to hospital as she had prematurely given birth.
“The baby died and people turned on the police officer. Incidents like this show that police and council need to prioritise the safety of ordinary people when they are carrying out their duties.
When people die and get injured in clashes, it seems police is acting out of spite instead of protecting us,” he said. Whereas the Julius Nyerere spot seems to be an area of interest for the police, there are several other undesignated pick-up points in the CBD.
The Robert Mugabe Road is a particularly unruly stretch, between Angwa and First Streets, with commuters locked in a random scramble for passengers.
Commuters plying Fourth Street to downtown route have also earned notoriety for weaving through traffic at a tangent and sometimes shooting through the red robot.
A kombi driver plying the City-Chitungwiza route, Lazarus Mangezi, blamed the city authorities for insisting on unworkable strategies.
“The Harare City Council is failing to consider the realities of the day.
“The population in the city is growing yet the city is doing nothing to improve trafficability. We still have the same number of bays we used to have many years ago.
“In fact, space previously designated for parking has been let for other structures,” Mangezi said.
“The council needs to create space so that there will be order. There has been talk of new termini for a long time yet we have not seen anything being done. They are not doing anything about dysfunctional traffic lights and yet the number of vehicles is increasing by the day,” he said.
Despite being one of the busiest orifices into the central business district, the intersection of Kenneth Kaunda Avenue and Julius Nyerere Street has been functioning without traffic lights for some months.
Most of the time, a police officer single-handedly controls traffic, sometimes causing confusion when he leaves his post to attend to side affair.
Kombi operators who spoke to this paper complained that the Chitungwiza Municipality were coming up with revenue-oriented traffic by-laws without consultation.
“We are hard pressed by increasing demands for money from the council.
“Recently they introduced a new operation licence fee without consulting us,” said a kombi operator identified as Solo Mandela.
“We understand that the council needs money badly but so does everyone. They should not transfer this burden to kombi owners,” he said.
“We are already paying an operation fee to the City of Harare and other obligatory fees from the Ministry of Transport. All of a sudden, Chitungwiza comes up with $100 without speaking to us. We feel this is inconsiderate,” he said.
However, Chitungwiza Town Clerk George Makunde has stuck to his guns, maintaining that the new fee structure is reasonable and will remain in force.
“It does not make sense for a businessperson to complain about a permit which is to be paid yearly, which adds up to $8 monthly.
“The director of finance could possibly introduce quarterly payment plans or have the price of the permit reduced,” said Mr Makunde.
Marvellous Chisango, a driver plying the City-Chitungwiza route, said council officials needed to be in uniform all the time so that drivers could tell who they were dealing with.
“Lately, Chitungwiza Municipality in partnership with Parkrite have been deploying people in plain clothes to arrest motorists using spikes.
“But how can we be sure that we are not dealing with criminals if they do not come properly dressed in uniforms?” Chisango said.
Sydney Zvingo, who plies the same route, said undercover operations for something as transparent as the transport business showed that council was more interested in fining crime than preventing it.
“When you wait for a crime to happen so that you can cash in on it, it shows that your priorities are not right. You are not for protecting the people but you are for milking them. This is the problem we have with our councils at the moment,” Zvingo said.