Maputo — Maputo came to a near standstill on Thursday, as passenger transport disappeared from the roads, the owners and drivers of the buses fearful that their vehicles would come under attack because of a fare increase authorised by Maputo City Council.
In central Maputo most shops and companies never opened, or closed before midday, because their workers were unable to arrive or left early. It was as if a public holiday had suddenly been decreed.
Unlike the last attempt to raise fares, in February 2008, or the riots against a hike in bread prices in September 2010, this time there was little violence. But fear of violence proved just as effective as the real thing in keeping buses off the roads.
The decision by the municipal council (agreed with the municipal authorities in the neighbouring city of Matola) was to increase the flat fare charged by the municipal bus company, TPM, from five to seven meticais (from 17 to 24 US cents), an increase of 40 per cent.
For the privately owned minibuses (colloquially known as “chapas”) the increase is the same for distances of up to ten kilometers. For journeys longer than this, the fare rises from 7.5 to nine meticais.
The old fares had been in force since 2004, and since then the operational costs for both TPM and the chapas had risen significantly – including wages, fuel and lubricants, tyres, spare parts and maintenance,
The increase in fuel costs has been cushioned by a subsidy on the diesel used by licensed chapas. That subsidy holds the price of diesel to 31 meticais a litre. Chapa owners say that this subsidy does not compensate for the rise in all their other costs.
Police were out in force early on Thursday morning, particularly at transport terminals and at other places where large crowds habitually gather. But this did not prevent groups of protestors, in outlying neighbourhoods, such as Zimpeto and Benfica, from throwing up barricades, and obstructing streets with burning tyres.
The police proved completely unable to protect buses and their passengers.
Thus in the neighbourhood of Hulene a mob prevented buses from driving into the centre of Maputo. “We were going downtown, but we turned back at Hulene because there were people preventing the buses from going any further”, one woman who was returning home told AIM.
In the nearby neighbourhood of Laulane, very few chapas were in evidence – and those that did take to the streets drove at high speed as a means of avoiding possible attack.
Private cars were mostly left alone, but in Benfica there were reports that a mob had torched a Toyota belonging to a South African citizen.
Citizens who had gone to work early in the morning went back home before lunchtime. And, with no buses available, they walked for several kilometres.
On television police spokesmen announced at midday that the situation was under control.
Apparently the bus drivers did not believe them, for by early afternoon there was no sign of any TPM buses or chapas in the centre of the city.
However, at about 16.00 TPM announced that it was resuming its services.
Claims were made in some of the social media that the government has interfered with the Internet and with mobile phone communications. However, AIM journalists have had no difficulty in accessing the Internet, or in making phone calls.
It was, however, impossible to send text messages using the largest mobile phone company, M-Cel, from late on Wednesday night until mid-morning on Thursday. But in the afternoon the text message service was normal. There was no problem at all, on Wednesday or on Thursday, in sending text messages by the second operator, Vodacom.
This is quite different from the situation during the September 2010 riots, when the government ordered the total shutdown of the text message service, affecting both the M-Cel and the Vodacom networks.