Reports that gangs of touts have seized control of Harare's municipal bus terminuses and are raking off thousands of dollars a day from kombi and bus drivers are disturbing; that they try and clothe themselves with the name of political parties just makes their behaviour worse.
Part of the problem is that Harare City Council never took control of these terminuses when Zupco abandoned them; the Council just let the kombis use them while it stood aside. Not surprisingly, touts moved in and later gang leaders followed, organising the touts, making the protection racket all encompassing, and raking off the bulk of the cash. Some have now bought their own fleets of kombis with their ill-gotten gains.
The council, after years of hesitation, has at long last sought a lasting solution to the anarchy of public transport in the city centre.
The plan is for the Council to take operational control of the terminuses and, for the western and southern routes, ensure that kombis are forbidden to clog streets, being forced to park in a guarded holding area in Coventry Road and summoned in small numbers to pick up waiting passengers. Eastern routes have the large terminus in Fourth Street and so do not need the special holding arrangements.
So long as the Council can resume effective control of the terminuses the gangs should be forced out. The Council plans to charge fees, interestingly not much different from those levied by the gangs, so even kombi drivers will see the advantages in being law abiding. But there will be some dissent over the western holding area and that, combined with bitterness by exiled gangsters, could present some problems.
The council needs to be firm, and be ready to call in help from the police if it cannot take back its own property and impose order on the kombi drivers. We are sure that the police, who have had to bear the brunt of enforcing traffic regulations in the city centre, will co-operate.
The efforts by gang leaders to politicise the issue need to be treated with disdain. Parties have repudiated any proffered allegiance from such dubious people and have seen that such support is so totally counter-productive that they are not even tempted.
The Council already has experience with removing touts. It took back the city centre parking bays from small gangs that had seized control of street parking and were extorting money from drivers.
The only opposition was the deal with EasiPark; many felt that the City should have done the job itself rather than let in a foreign company to milk the city. But restoring control of parking to agents of the Council has been a boon and is slowly drawing back shoppers who had abandoned the city centre for the suburbs.
The same determination is needed for the terminuses and the waiting areas in some western streets where terminuses have been forced to overflow. Hopefully the holding area will allow the council to reclaim many of those street temporary terminuses.
The council, in this operation, will be using its own staff, having learned from the errors of the parking contracts.
The pill, for both parking and bus operations, can be sugared by the council making a declaration that all net takings will go towards expanding parking or improving facilities for public transport, as the case might be.
Some of the terminuses are a disgrace, especially in the suburbs, and while everyone acknowledges that kombis should only stop at designated bus stops, rather than where they please or in the most dangerous positions possibly next to intersections, someone has to replace most of those bus-stop signs and, we hope, restore shelters.
At one time shelters were in good condition because a go-ahead advertising company created sponsorship arrangements, just as Zupco was dying, and it should be possible to do something similar again. In the end kombi drivers and their passengers will both benefit from order.
If the money collected now is enough to give touts a living and gang leaders a large, untaxed, income, then it should be enough to pay terminus staff properly and have a bit left over to fix up the facilities. As with the parking, while touts might go decent jobs are being created. The only difference is that everyone knows who the employed people are, and who is accountable for their actions.
It was wrong of the City Council to let things deteriorate so much by abdicating its responsibilities. Now it must move ahead swiftly and determinedly to reclaim its appointed role and make life a lot easier for everyone.