Feature: Banned kombi crews play cat-and-mouse games with police

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By Kudzai Mazvarirwofa
GOVERNMENT emphasised pandemic safety when it cracked down on private transport operators. But with jobs scarce, drivers see little choice, but to stay on the road illegally though.

At a busy gas station in central Harare, a conductor calls out for passengers to board a minibus, or “kombi”.

Minutes later, a truck full of police officers screeches to a halt nearby. The crowd of commuters flees.

“This is our new normal,” says a 21-year-old driver named Terrence, referring to a police crackdown on independent transport operators. He asked to use only his first name for fear of retribution.

“We don’t have other ways to make an honest living, so we just operate on the run, hoping to make enough to survive for the day.”

In March 2020, when Zimbabwe began its first COVID-19 lockdown, the government issued a decree that made kombis and all other forms of public transportation illegal except for the State-owned Zupco buses.

The stated purpose of the ban was to enforce safety protocols to reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

But kombi operators say government is using the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to grant the State-owned company a monopoly on public transportation and edge independent operators out of business — leaving them with no means to earn a living.

While the official unemployment rate in Zimbabwe is over 70%, the vast majority of the country’s labour force works in the informal economy. These jobs tend to be unstable with low wages.

The pandemic, which came when the country was already experiencing recession and hyperinflation, intensified economic instability.

For many independent drivers and conductors, being on the road enables them to earn wages comparable to formal employment salaries.

Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights filed a lawsuit in 2020 arguing that the ban on informal transport operators was discriminatory, unconstitutional and created an unlawful monopoly.

The application was originally dismissed but is currently before the High Court.

Zimbabweans have long relied on kombis. The vans are smaller and the fares are more expensive than the government-subsidised buses, but they run more frequently and cover more routes.

Once unauthorised kombis were removed from the road, Zimbabwe faced a major transportation crisis, as there were not enough State-owned buses to meet the country’s transportation needs.

While some kombis are able to partner the State bus company and register under the transport utility’s franchise, they typically earn less by doing so.

Drivers, who defy the ban and continue to operate illegally, risk hefty fines and having their vehicles impounded.

Adding to kombi drivers’ frustration is knowing that bus drivers from the State-run company are often guilty of the offences for which government cracks down on them.

These, they say, include overloading, not adhering to COVID-19 guidelines and allowing unsafe drivers or vehicles on the road.

Terrence says he began driving a kombi in 2019, after working occasionally as a conductor to pay for his schooling.

“I had a black-market link who supplied me with diesel when fuel was scarce, so I was always on the road, making money,” he says.

“We had occasional run-ins with the police, but when the pandemic started, everything just got worse.”

Tensions between the Zimbabwe government and kombi drivers predate the pandemic. When protests against a rise in fuel prices erupted in Harare and Bulawayo in January 2019, the government blamed kombi drivers for the unrest.

It wasn’t until the pandemic started, though, that all privately-run kombis were banned.

Harare City Council spokesperson Michael Chideme declined to comment on the crackdown on illegal kombis and whether local government wants the State-run buses and private kombis to co-exist again in the future.

Likewise, Zvinechimwe Churu, secretary for the Local Government, Public Works and National Housing ministry, says he could not comment on a case that was already in court.

Terrence says he stopped driving kombis in March 2020 at the start of the lockdown. These days, he drives a pirate taxi, called a mushikashika.

Mushikashika are included in the public transport ban, but can be harder than kombis for police to identify.

“Due to the rising number of thefts, people fear boarding small cars,” Terrence says.

“So business can oftentimes be very slow.”

Mandebvu, who asked to be referred to by his last name for fear of retribution, is another Harare driver who traded a kombi for a mushikashika.

He says he has been arrested many times during his 15 years in the public transport business.

“It is not easy being a kombi driver constantly at loggerheads with the council and the police in Zimbabwe. But we have no jobs, so what can we do?

Mandebvu says. “I would rather stay in this cat-and-mouse game with the police than resort to theft so I can eat.”

Ngoni Katsvairo is secretary-general of the Greater Harare Association of Commuter Omnibus Operators, which represents commuter bus drivers and conductors.

He says most kombi drivers don’t want to join the State-run franchise due to the low payments drivers receive. They prefer to operate independently.

“The over 10 000 kombis outside the [State] franchise should be allowed to come back and operate under an organised association franchise system while we deal effectively with the non-compliant ones,” Katsvairo says, referring to unsafe drivers.

In the meantime, kombi and mushikashika drivers find creative ways to stay on the road.

Terrence, whose mushikashika belongs to his uncle, found a “defender” — a police officer who acts as the owner of the car should the driver be threatened with a ticket.

“Everyone driving a mushikashika has one,” he says.

“A ticket is US$50,”  Terrence says. “However, if I give the arresting officer US$10 and my defender US$10, I am still left with some money and I am allowed back on the road, so I can recoup it — if I don’t get arrested again.”

  • Kudzai Mazvarirwofa is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Harare, Zimbabwe.