AT 6pm, Harare’s central business district (CBD) is a hive of activity, with many people rushing to their various termini to get transport home.
BY KENNEDY NYAVAYA
On a normal working day, Harare streets are a traffic nightmare for both pedestrians and motorists.
Amidst the rush, however, is a group of people who seem unmoved by the possibilities of getting stuck till late or getting drenched wet in the highly populated vicinity.
Commuter omnibus touts have flooded virtually every street corner where there is moving activity especially in downtown Harare with other CBDs across the country also accommodating this largely youthful population.
By definition, the verb -tout- refers to “an attempt to sell (something), typically by a direct or persistent approach” and although this encompasses a lot of informal traders dotted in most urban centres, it is those in the transport sector that have owned the name by default.
Mostly aged below 25 years they work virtually round the clock coercing passengers to board kombis of their choice.
“There is no holiday in this line of work and a resting day is solely one’s decision not to come,” says one tout popularly known in the streets as Oga.
The 24-year old father of one said he used to be a conductor for some bus operator before they went out of business.
“I decided to come here where my peers are since they already knew me. Being a conductor is better because you get a fixed amount at the end of the week of month but on our side you can go back home with way less,” he said recalling how life as an employed conductor was more stable.
Out here the day starts as early as 4am with no knockoff time. After a fruitful outing he can take home between $10 and $15 (which can translate to $450 a month) — enough to sustain his pregnant wife and three-year-old daughter.
“That is if you have not been arrested because if you are caught (by the police), they want $10 but you can talk to them and give them just $3 or $5 for their pocket,” he said.
Many of the touts, including Oga, mix work and illicit pleasure and often operate under the heavy influence of alcohol and drugs.
“Hapana munhu anofaya mota ari sober (you can’t tout when sober),” he said, adding that vulgar and obscene language was the norm at the illegal ranks known as “mushika shika”.
A senior tout, Stewart Chinanga, who has been in the trade for years, however accused the younger upstarts of lacking decorum.
“Most of the young ones are school dropouts and that contributes to their actions such that after a cash-in from three kombis, they just think of buying Bronco (an alcoholic cough syrup),” he said.
Bronco is the bastardisation of Broncleer, an alcoholic cough syrup widely abused as a drug.
Chinanga, who is in his early 30s, said he neither smokes nor drinks. He said after years in the trade, he became a self-appointed rank marshal.
“You impose yourself to rule. There is no committee which seats down to select you just need to have power that frightens others which could be natural or by other means,” he said.
Chinanga reminisces the days the system used to be more defined and hassle-free but with the growing population, it is far from the blissful days which enabled a close friend of his to build a house in the dormitory town of Chitungwiza.
Within this glaring disorderly street behaviour, which also applies to long distance transporters, is a system which one breaches at their own peril because men like Chinanga are part of the bigger league that registers new public transport vehicles and even “initiate” the newbies.
“When you get here, you have no choice but to subscribe to our rules or else you will not get to work. You cannot just get here and start working, that can only happen if you come with someone we already know or you have worked as a driver or conductor at this rank prior,” he said.
“Even kombi owners now trust us and they can approach the rank martials and be charged about $30 for their vehicle to start operating from here.”
These marshals also serve as middlemen between some sleazy police officers and kombi crews who pay for the free passage on the roads.
The mediator role pumps up the balances in their piggy banks but the stakes are getting higher as each day passes and sometimes the pressure is frustrating especially when it’s “dry”.
Late last month a city man fell victim to this frustration and died after he was reportedly manhandled by touts while intending to board a bus to Mutare near Roadport bus terminus along Robert Mugabe Road.
“When it is dry there are scrambles for travellers and that could have been the case which resulted in that death,” Chinanga said.
Harare City Council spokesperson Michael Chideme said they had engaged four retired senior officers to help with planning and implementation of a viable, user-friendly public transport system in the city. He said public transport operators have also come on board.
“This is a sustained programme which will not end until the goals are achieved and they (transport operators) have been very forthcoming, even coming forward with plans of how we can both proceed going forward,” he said.
The council’s ultimate plan is to close down most ranks in the CBD and open holding bays in the outskirts but this is likely to be in the long-term given the need for proper infrastructure development.
Traffic Safety Council of Zimbabwe (TSCZ) communications officer Tatenda Chinoda earlier this month told this paper that bus operators should run their businesses professionally to end the touting problem.
“Touts are not only illegal, but also animalistic. Someone pays them for touting (and) it is this system of paying touts that is very wrong,” he said then.
“Operators and bus drivers must run their business professionally or else they will be held accountable.”
But even commuter operators also disown touts and claim that even in formal ranks these individuals arm-twist them into paying.
Economists claim the reason for a rise in such criminal ways of making money is a result of a shrinking job market owing to the crumbling economy.
Although under siege Oga and his peers in this tarmac and skyscraper “jungle” have no plan B as they have never tasted formal employment.
“Yes they are arresting more nowadays and even conductors are in trouble. It’s painful and you can only be grateful if you survive arrest when you are now going back home,” he said, admitting his fate is uncertain.
Unfortunately there appears to be no solution in sight as the Zanu PF led government appears out of touch and according to its deputy spokesperson Psychology Maziwisa, considers “casual jobs” as part of the 2,2 million jobs they promised in their 2013 elections build-up manifesto.
While the clean-up will make the streets cleaner to achieve the dream of a safer international city status deadline pegged at 2025, it has raised concerns over the livelihoods of some citizens dependant on alternative income for their livelihood.