Editorial Comment: Councils, police and operators combined effort can thwart touts Touts are generally aggressive young and middle-aged men, almost never women, who have imposed themselves in loosely-organised gangs at bus and kombi terminuses and at the informal loading and dropping off points in and around the city centre, at the Mbare main long-distance terminus and at several suburban terminal points and even some bus stops. - File picture.

ALMOST everyone is at fault when it comes to the burden touts impose on public transport in Harare and other parts of Zimbabwe and the solution, which means removing touts and ensuring that necessary services are rendered by authorised staff, will require everyone to cooperate.

Touts are generally aggressive young and middle-aged men, almost never women, who have imposed themselves in loosely-organised gangs at bus and kombi terminuses and at the informal loading and dropping off points in and around the city centre, at the Mbare main long-distance terminus and at several suburban terminal points and even some bus stops.

They earn their living by demanding and getting money from bus and kombi drivers and even mushikashika drivers, generally speaking the equivalent of a fare or two for urban routes and up to 10 percent of the total ticket sales for intercity routes. 

Drivers who do not pay cannot get any passengers. Some bus and kombi owners are willing to let the illegal protection racket operate, as there does not seem to be an alternative, and some go considerably further with a far closer relationship with the touts to gain a competitive advantage.

What needs to be recognised is that while few cooperate in the actions against touts, although passengers and many others complain, the touts themselves at each rank, or in each terminus do cooperate with each other and ensure that newcomers cannot get a foothold and that a bus unable to load passengers cannot try another rank. 

The touts have a good income, although their organisers do earn more by taking a cut. Touts are not shy about trying to protect themselves, and in many cases will claim they have protection, and others will claim they are protected by city councillors. 

Touts are a relatively new phenomenon at terminuses, central and suburban. When Zupco ran the urban bus services, the company also controlled the terminuses and had its supervisors and marshals on site. 

The long distance terminuses were well run by municipal authorities, who would call in the police if there was any trouble.

The collapse of Zupco and the withdrawal of municipal staff, or at least effective municipal staff, created the conditions for the touts to move in despite efforts by bus companies and kombi operators to have some self-organisation. This was either ineffective since it needed council backing or was sabotaged by over-competitiveness.

Yet action against touts can work. Parking in central Harare used to be totally controlled by touts who organised tout territories and allocated parking to drivers, and often creating extra illegal parking. They would claim to be “looking after the car”, but would block anyone leaving the parking place without paying.

In just about the only successful operation by Harare City Council in the last almost 25 years, this illegal protection racket ended, in a campaign that lasted a fairly short time, by the introduction of City Parking and its fees, sometimes far higher fees. The incentive for the council was obviously the large and regular daily flow of cash into its coffers via its private front company, but that does not diminish the success.

City Parking, backed by the right to clamp vehicles and even call in tow trucks, tamed the touts, and brought order to the streets. Those ranks of uniformed staff do a better job than the touts, have the required authority, are properly supervised, and even protect vehicles better than the old touts.

The important points to note are that there were authorised, supervised and trained uniformed staff, that the fees touts were charging were paid to the authorities instead, and that illegal parking was ended through clamping and towing. 

This tells us how the tout menace at terminuses and major pick-up points can be ended.

It is no use for Harare City Council to note that touts, and in some cases vending space barons, have taken over the terminuses. The council has staff and can take them back, as to some extent they are trying to do, although only in office hours and without closing the markets that space-barons created. 

A lot of kombis and buses do not even use the terminuses, and most except for the Simon Muzenda terminus serving the eastern suburbs are admittedly too small, and informal loading points have been created. There are also problems of routes ending at the edges of the city centre and passengers wanting to be closer to the other edge, so informal arrangements continue. 

But for a start, the city council could take back the terminuses, fence them, provide decent security for passengers and charge a modest fee to the buses and kombis that use them. The council could also work with those associations of bus companies and now the handful of associations representing kombi owners that have shown a lot of willingness to comply with regulations. 

These associations represent owners who want an orderly and secure system with touts and cowboy operators cut out, or at least the independent operators made to join a proper association and conform to minimum standards. 

The police have shown they are willing to take action, although clearing out a gang of touts simply allows a new gang to move in. This is why a combined approach is required: the police clearing out the tout gangs, the councils moving in with proper staffing and taking back control, and the respectable bus and kombi operators, through their associations, helping set up proper systems that all users will follow.

At the same time, Harare City Council needs to think about some new terminuses or equivalents. For example, “Showgrounds” outside Exhibition Park needs to be regularised, probably with a proper, fenced and secure terminus in the open space on the east side. The convenient “ZBC” informal terminus in Southerton can be converted into a proper terminus nearby. There are many others.

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