Texan Mabasa (36) is well-versed in all the trials and tribulations of life in the fast lane of taxi driving — the rich pickings, established friendship and developing human relationship skills as well as the potential abuse and the threat to life.
Mabasa says unlike most employed people, he — just like many other taxi drivers — has a negotiated, often flexible operating system, which he agreed upon with his employer.
“I don’t have a fixed monthly salary,” he says. “All my boss needs on a daily basis is $50 and that is not negotiable. It’s up to me to make sure that I get it. All the other monies I get are mine. Sometimes I can get as much as $100 or $120 a day.”
But there is always the menace of police roadblocks, and Mabasa says they have to contend with the predatory instincts of the police, whom he claims regard them as “cash cows”.
“Their demands cannot be met. Most of the time you can’t really meet their requirements, so you end up with no choice, but to part with between $5 and $10 at every roadblock,” he says, adding that sometimes they get signals from other drivers about police presence and find alternative routes to evade them.
The police require them to produce a fitness certificate, driver’s licence, third-party insurance and re-test certificates. “To be honest, you can’t have all those things,” says Mabasa. “In my case, I got my licence in 1997 and I haven’t gone back for a re-test, so it’s a problem.”
Another taxi driver who identified himself as Lisbon adds that a lot of times, they have to contend with thieves and most taxi drivers are easy prey.
“You need to be on the lookout for those,” he says.
“And you can only do that if your instincts are good. You’ll be OK. Maybe I am lucky because I trained in karate and when things get nasty, I know how to respond.”
He says a significant number of his customers are regular, and that ensures a steady stream of business. He gives all “first-timers” his business card so that they can always get in touch should they need transport. The majority of his customers, he says, are female.
“I think mostly men will only get a taxi as a last resort. But women usually prefer hassle-free travel and if they have the money, they don’t hesitate to hire us,” he says.
The majority of customers, he says, also prefer short distances, especially from the central business district to the city’s outskirts with just a few travelling to far-flung places like Chitungwiza and Norton.
For most taxi drivers, there are no hard and fast rules regarding their working hours, but most of them almost always have to literally break their backs if they are to make any money in light of the competition in the industry.
According to Trynos Makoto, another taxi driver, most drivers usually knock off around 2am and will be back around 6am to start work again.
“People who enjoy clubbing constitute a big percentage of our clients, so we usually park outside the clubs so that when they come out and want to go home, we are on hand,” he says. “At that time, there are no commuter omnibuses on the roads so it works to our advantage.”
Makoto says as competition is stiff, it is always advisable for taxi drivers to maintain their sobriety as too much alcohol would get into the way of service delivery and compromise profits. He says there are some drivers who would be sloshed by 10pm so fail to capitalise on the late hours’ brisk business.
The taxi driver, who has had unpleasant experiences with robbers in the course of his work, says the fact that he is a trained karate practitioner has always come in handy in dealing with volatile encounters with robbers.
Most of the robbers encountered, he says, use knives and screwdrivers to threaten them into submission. “There is, however, very limited use of guns,” he says.
“Usually they use toy guns just to scare us into giving them money and valuables. In some cases they will just be toy guns.”
In May this year, an 18-year-old identified as Tafadzwa Humure was jailed after he was convicted of robbing six taxi drivers of their vehicles, cash and other valuables after scaring them with a toy gun on night trips to Mabelreign.
Most short distances covered cost between $2 and $7, while going to distant destinations such as Chitungwiza can fetch $15.
Makoto says a number of their customers who ply long routes are usually merchandisers who will be ferrying goods for resale in their neighbourhoods.
“Since the longer trips are costly, some negotiate to travel with other people. Someone may say, ‘Well, I can pay the $15, but can I get in with two or three other people?’” he said.
There was a sudden influx of taxis in Zimbabwe last year as they looked to capitalise on tourists who had been expected to “flood” Zimbabwe during the 2010 Fifa World Cup held in South Africa.
The Hospitality Association of Zimbabwe, a coalition of hotel and safari operators, is encouraging taxi drivers operating at airports and resorts to give tourists a positive impression of Zimbabwe, because they are often the first people tourists meet when arriving by air.