4 September 2014

Zimbabwe: We Are Here to Stay - Pirate Taxi Drivers

A tout holds the door of a small car and shouts,"Fourth Street via Robert Mugabe. Board this one; it's about to leave!"

There is competition for clients as other touts, too, look for passengers, advertising their cars in a way they believe quickly attracts commuters.Some dance, sing and swing doors.

One by one commuters who have just disembarked from the Copacabana Rank board the car of their choice.

Two sit in front and four in the back seat.

The touts then jump onto the back of the car, their legs dangling.

The car speeds off towards Robert Mugabe Road.

The driver breaks all known road rules, driving in a zigzag manner and past red traffic lights as he tries to beat the traffic jam.

In a few minutes, the car makes a screeching halt at Bakers Inn, Fourth Street and Jason Moyo Avenue.

Again, the tout immediately starts looking for new passengers to take back to Copacabana Rank.

More such cars follow and also go through the same routine over and over again.

But besides the hazards, commuters just love these cars.

Those interviewed said while the pirate taxis were a menace, they were a convenient means of transport especially when one was behind time.

"I often use these cars when I am late or carrying heavy luggage. It is expensive to hire a taxi which costs $3 for the same distance. I pay only R5," says Mrs Deborah Marufu, a vendor at Fourth Street.

She uses the pirate taxis every time when coming from Mbare to buy fruits for resale at the busy Fourth Street rank.

The failure by Zupco shuttle busses to service the central business district routes has led to the sprouting of pirate taxis that are now becoming a traffic menace at a time when the city council is frantically trying to decongest the city centre for easy flow of traffic.

It seems the commuter omnibuses that had filled the void left by Zupco have since been outplayed by small ex-Japanese vehicles that are wreaking havoc in the city centre in apparent defiance of the by-laws governing the operation of public transport.

Sadly, the city fathers who are supposed to ensure orderly movement of traffic in the city centre seem to be running out of ideas on how to combat the ever swelling pirate taxis who constantly play hide and seek with law enforcement agents.

Besides the apparent lack of fitness of the vehicles, these illegal operators are conducting their operations in the full glare of the police despite constant arrests and being fined by the police.

What is more worrying is that their operations pose a serious risk to both motorists and pedestrians as two or more touts are normally seen dangerously dangling on moving vehicles, especially those from the corner of Jason Moyo to Forth and those at Bank and Mbuya Nehanda Street including those who are operating at Town House.

In an interview, one of the illegal operators, Michael Maromo said he was a qualified motor mechanic but resorted to the illegal transportation because of his failure to attract clients at his informal garage.

"I am a qualified motor mechanic with more than 10 years experience and life has not been that rosy. It was difficult for me to raise money for my children's upkeep and I started experimenting with one of my client's cars.

"He took long to pay my dues and I took his car on the road and soon I was making money to sustain my livelihood. I later handed over the car to the owner after I got money to deposit my own," he said.

Maromo said he had been a pirate taxi driver for two years and was now used to the constant confrontations with law enforcement agents.

"At first I was scared that I would end up in prison but I realised that if I have a few dollars to grease some palms, in no time I will be back on the road," he said.

Another driver only identified as Fidza said he obtained a driver's licence and opted to drive pirate taxis in order to acquire the required five years experience to drive a commuter omnibus.

"There are many requirements for driving a commuter omnibus such as five years experience, which I do not have. I will have the experience while driving these pirate taxis and it is easy to get one.

"I am here to stay and if I do not do so I will die of hunger because there is nowhere I can get a job at the moment. At the moment, I move around with a tout whom I employ and carry at the back of my vehicle. I give him 50 cents per trip," he said.

Fidza said he could hire a car and pay a minimum of $50 per day to the vehicle owner.

A tout who works at the corner of Leopold Takawira and Speke Street said the Avondale-Parirenyatwa route was the most lucrative one.

Ironically, the illegal pickup point is adjacent to Town House where council officials watch them conduct business in broad daylight.

"Commuter omnibuses in the Copacabana rank take time to fill up. That is why people opt to come here for these taxis. They are preferred by those who visit loved ones at Parirenyatwa Hospital who can use them on coming back.

"It can take less than five minutes to fill it up hence people come here. It is better they allow us to operate here than stay at home because some used to engage in criminal activities but have since stopped because they go home with something for their families," he said.

Grater Harare Association of Commuter Operators secretary general Mr Ngonidzashe Katsvairo applauded Government for recognising the informal sector which he said was the mainstay of the economy.

"It is a source of income for a lot of the unemployed Zimbabweans, their families, dependants and others in the downstream industries. The sector has to be well organised unlike what we are seeing with pirate taxis.

"They need to be registered as public transporters so that they also pay fees and taxes to Government. Pirate taxis also need to be given a proper place to work from after being registered unlike the current disorder on our streets," he said.

Mr Katsvairo said the roads had become difficult for motorists and pedestrians who are sometimes caught in the crossfire whenever the pirate taxis are chased by police.

"These roads are now virtually impassable for motorists and those that remain unregistered must be stopped from competing with registered public service vehicles like kombis and buses since they are not contributing anything to the fiscus. There has to be proper enforcement and heavy handed ways of dealing with unregistered operators and pirate taxis," he said.

City of Harare spokesperson Mr Leslie Gwindi said the pirate taxis were plying the routes illegally and they will continue clamping them.

"They are very disruptive on our roads and the way they conduct business is totally unacceptable. We will continue to function like we started in an effort to chase them out of town.

"We will continue clamping and towing them like we are doing with errant commuter omnibuses," he said.

Council is towing vehicles and releasing them after two weeks after fulfilling conditions such as inspection and payment of storage fees over the period.

Mr Gwindi, however, ruled out the possibility of formalising their operations.

"The vehicles have interrupted the whole left lane of Leopold Takawira and it is inaccessible," said Mr Gwindi.

The City of Harare has so far impounded more than 1 000 commuter omnibuses and pirate taxis.

It is however incumbent upon the city fathers to holistically deal with the issue of pirate taxis and thoroughly investigate allegations that some of their employees are colluding with the illegal operators to continue operating and evading arrest.

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