The rise in kombi fares is sweet music to touts, as their earnings depend on a particular fare being charged by commuter omnibus operators.
Beaven Dhliwayo and Tanaka Mahanya
Harare’s Copacabana rank, one of the busiest bus terminuses in the city’s central business district (CBD), is a hive of activity.
It is 5pm and women, men and children try to negotiate the crowded streets “littered” with vendors selling various wares on the pavements.
In this part of town, one has to keep an eye on their belongings as those with sticky fingers (pickpockets) are on the prowl.
It is also important to keep an eye on the pavements as accidentally stepping on a vendor’s wares results in verbal insults or being forced to pay for the damaged goods.
With many people coming from work rushing to different terminuses to get transport to ferry them back home during this peak hour, touts operating from the ranks also cash in on the volumes.
This group of energetic men, who seem unmoved by the possibility of getting stuck in the traffic for the better part of the night, are known as “mahwindi” in street lingo.
Their job description is straight forward — shout out loud, find customers, lure them to the kombi by whatever means until it is full and watch out for both Zimbabwe Republic Police and municipal police officers.
These touts have invaded almost all bus terminuses in the CBD, and others in areas outside the city centre like Mbare Musika, Mbudzi and Westgate.
The trade is plied by mostly youths aged 30 years and below, who have mastered the art of convincing passengers to board their kombi for a “thank you” fee from drivers.
Sometimes they demand money which can range from $5 to $30 per vehicle, depending on the route.
Then there are some who specifically load passengers for certain kombis, especially those with large fleets.
These operate in shifts which span from between 5am and 4pm, with another shift starting between 4pm till 10pm.
According to the Cambridge English Dictionary, the verb tout refers to advertising, talking about, or praising something or someone repeatedly, especially as a way of encouraging people to like, accept, or buy something.
Although the definition can encompass a lot of informal traders in most CBDs across the country, it is those in the transport sector that own the name.
At Copacabana, kombis queue for their turn to load thousands of commuters vying to get transport back home.
The touts are in total control, shouting and directing all other kombi drivers to close their doors and wait for their turn.
Banging of doors when they see police officers approaching and revving of vehicles in preparation for quick take-off is the order of the day.
Commuters have to be alert at all times to avoid being run over.
The rise in kombi fares is sweet music to touts, as their earnings depend on a particular fare being charged by commuter omnibus operators. In fact, in most cases, it is the touts themselves who charge the fares and are partly responsible for the high fares that passengers have been complaining about.
A tout at Copacabana identified as Gody says they are earning a decent living through the touting business.
“If a kombi charges $5, then the driver leaves me with one passenger’s fare,” he said.
“If it is a busy day, I make more than $100 a day because I definitely load about 20 kombis a day.
“With the money I get from touting, I have managed to take good care of my family of four. I know that I make more money compared to those in formal employment, though my job is considered menial by many.”
Another tout, Admire Mutandwa, operates at Market Square bus terminus, loading kombis that ply the Harare-Guruve route.
His day starts at 8am and ends at 5pm.He said a single trip to Guruve costs $65, and he and his team of three are paid $30 for their work.
In most cases, they load up to 10 kombis per day, which means they make $300 which they share.
This translates to an average of $75 per person on a daily basis.
Some days bring more rich pickings.
Mutandwa’s team makes up to $500 per day on busy days, meaning each tout takes $125 home — no small change for a single day’s work.
Monthly, the touts get around $2 400 and sometimes even more, beating salaries of many formal workers.
Most importantly to the touts, the money comes in hard cash.
At Simon Muzenda (formerly Fourth Street) bus terminus, a young woman is suddenly mobbed by a group of touts as she is about to get into a kombis headed for Mutare.
Each one of them tries to entice her into boarding their kombi using persuasive language.
Street lingo such as “gulez”, “sistren”, “elder”, “mudhara” and “scholar” is used.
“Huyai mukwire nyowani (board this new kombi) sister, your nice clothes won’t be torn or get dirty,” the touts shout.
“We have a good sound system, you will enjoy your ride. Scholar pays half price.”
Another tout is busy convincing the same woman to board the kombi he is loading as it is almost full: “50 bond, 50 bond. Yazara iyi gulez (it is almost full), you won’t stay here for long.”
The third tout has a tight grip on her bag. He won’t let go. She pulls and begs him to surrender the bag, but it is no use. He tightens his grip, eyes bloodshot as if going for the kill.
The woman and other touts give up. They have simply lost the battle. She walks fast as she follows the tout who has grabbed her bag. He leads her to an empty kombi at the end of the queue.
She is told she will get a good seat. The other touts who have lost the battle tell her not to come back begging for a seat on their kombis if the one she has “chosen” does not depart on time.
Afraid to come out, the woman silently curses “these mahwindis” for forcing her into an empty kombi. As the skirmishes continue, to the disaappintment of the young woman, police officers arrive at the terminus, prompting touts to flee the scene with some locking themselves inside the kombis.
It’s always a cat-and-mouse game, one that requires agility and determination, never mind a thick skin, thick enough to resist a police baton.
Mahwindi and anti-riot police popularly known as “mangongongo” in the streets — a name probably derived from their protective headgear.
A tout at Warren Park 1 illegal terminus (known as mushikashika) at the corner of Chinhoyi and Jason Moyo streets named Changara says in their trade there is no holiday.
The 26-year-old, whose wife is expecting, tells The Herald that his day starts as early as 4am, with flexible knock-off times.
After a busy day, Changara can take home between $100 and $120 (which translates to $1 600 a month). He says the money is enough to pay for his rentals and support his pregnant wife.
But it is rare for him to take the full day’s takings home. “Sometimes the police want anything between $60 and $100 to release you, if they pounce on you,” he says.
A portion of their earnings is also spent on beer, including drugs.
Most of the youthful touts at the mushikashikas, including Changara, operate under the influence of alcohol, heavy concoctions such as bronco and drugs, especially marijuana.
Bronco is the street name for Broncleer, a cough syrup popular with youths.
Although it has been banned in Zimbabwe, it is smuggled into the country via different ports of entry.
The cough syrup is sold at US$5 per bottle in Harare and the touts seem to have easy access to it. Empty bottles of Bronco have become a common sight at the bus terminuses.
“Hapana munhu anofaya mota ari sober mdara (no one can load a car when sober),” boasts Changara, visibly high.
However, a senior tout, referred to as Baba Jonzo, who has been in the trade for years, accused the youthful touts of lacking morals, leading them to abuse drugs.
He says most of the youngsters are school dropouts and this negatively impacts on their behaviour.
“They just think of buying Bronco and alcohol whenever they cash-in,” he reveals.
Baba Jonzo, who is in his early 30s, said after years in the trade, he has “crowned” himself a rank marshal.
He complains that being a rank marshal no longer pays like in the past when many made enough money to build houses of their own.
At Mbare Musika bus terminus, touts are making a killing as they load buses which ply long distances, with some buses going as far as Chipinge.
They run the operation mafia-style, and the system is closely knit.
When one gets into the touting business, it is like a spider web, difficult to untangle, keeping people like Baba Jonzo long in the trade.
Each gang controls particular buses and no one dares to intrude into each other’s territory. Controlling the Westgate bay is one Bla Jedza, in his late 30s, heavily built, with the fleshy, arrogant face of an ancient emperor.
In a hoarse voice he says: “Mdara, we make a lot of money here. These buses leave money equivalent three passengers’ fares because we are in control here.”
They make up to a $1 000 or more per day in their different groups at this rank.
At many of the points visited, the touts, because of easy access to cash, can afford to eat anything they want.
Most of them, especially those at the Newlands mushikashika, dress exceptionally well — fashionable sneakers, jeans and T-shirts.
At this rank, they charge $7 for every car they load and they say they are happy, even with several brushes with the law.
To them, their job is just like any other, though they know that they sometimes can be a thorn in the flesh to commuters.