16 October 2017

Zimbabwe Police Harassment - a Tourist's Lament

Photo: The Herald
Roadblock (file photo).

Zimbabwe is an expensive tourist destination if one measures the value of the Rand (or Pula) against the Dollar and consider the most expensive border fees in the region.

The average South African middle class tourist, therefore, really has to save up and budget when considering a holiday in Zimbabwe. It is such a scenic country that a visit, nevertheless, remains worth the cost.

Zimbabwean people have a reputation for their generous hospitality. Once you have entered Zimbabwe by road, however, your first interaction with a Zimbabwean citizen, after the border, will likely be with a member of the Zimbabwe Republic Police at one of the many roadblocks. One's illusion of having a relaxing time in this spectacular country, interacting with interesting cultures and getting value for one's hard-earned money, is immediately destroyed.

I can't recollect the last time I was fined in South Africa for a traffic violation and I have travelled through Botswana 6 times from Martinsdrift to Kasane and back. In this approximately 14,000 km, I have never been fined and hardly ever encountered any roadblocks apart from veterinary checks. Surely this is testimony that I generally respect and abide to traffic regulations.

After entering Zimbabwe (via Pandamatenga), in just the last 20 km before Vic Falls, you run the gauntlet through two roadblocks with hostile, unreasonable ZRP officials, who treat you as a potential criminal, or source of revenue. This large police presence, ironically, does not instil a sense of safety, but rather the impression of a dangerous country under siege and to be avoided. A decent and respectful approach to the authority to these rather scary officials is not rewarded by a similar response. In a tourist friendly country, a foreigner might expect to be advised, by a reasonable officer. If the tourist had, unwittingly, transgressed a minor local regulation and not to be enthusiastically fined exorbitant amounts of money!!

I have been to the Victoria Falls twice in 2015 and 2016 and had to pay a total of four fines for the most ridiculous and creative "offences" imaginable. On my first visit, I had to cut the days I intended to camp in the Zambezi park short, in order to make provision in my budget for the fines I had to pay (about R1,000). This meant that I had to make an unplanned border crossing into Botswana where I could afford to stay for two nights in Kasane, with better amenities, for the same price than one night in the park, to complete my holiday. Leaving Zimbabwe, at that time, filled me with relief, disgust and a strong desire never to return.

I would like to illustrate my experience with a brief summary of some of the fines I got: A US$20 fine for slowly and safely crossing a railway line in Vic Falls without stopping at the BROKEN (we later videotaped / photographed this robot) robot. There were no visible STOP signs or any other road sign before the crossing. Local vehicles rushing over the line also did not suggest that a dead stop was required.

I, thus, got punished for a lack of maintenance on the infrastructure of the town!

(At peril of making tedious comparisons: In Botswana at any railway crossing, you will find a railway warning sign long in advance, a stop sign and a functioning robot). Ignoring THAT deserves a hefty fine!

While being issued my fine in Vic Falls, numerous local vehicles still crossed the railway line at speed without even slowing down. Pointing this out to the officer and mentioning that as a result of his actions, we would leave Zimbabwe for Botswana and not return again, had no effect on his resolve to hustle a foreigner out of dollars.

I later encountered a roadblock about a kilometre from the border post at Kazangula! What is the "function" of this roadblock? To keep the roads safe by fining people a kilometre before they exit your country?? It can only, logically, serve as final pay-before-you-go ticket, before the lucrative source of income "escapes" into Botswana. My 10- year- old daughter, who was sleeping in the rear seat, was forced to exit the car to sign a $20 fine for not wearing a seat belt, whilst surrounded by a group of intimidating grown men! The officer refused to allow me to sign the fine.

Again, what is the reasoning behind harassing a child? Would any sensible parent want to expose their child to this again?

But I was lured back by my desire to visit the Falls again, against my better judgement and based on previous experience. This time I did not take my family along, but a group of friends. I really tried to ensure that I would comply with every rule in the book by researching everything I could find regarding Zimbabwean road regulations on the internet. I truly believe it is important to abide to and respect the laws of the country one visits.

My confidence in all my preparations was soon shattered. 30 km outside Vic Falls an officer wanted to fine me $40 for not having the right type of reflective stickers (which was absolutely acceptable the previous year!). To my knowledge, Zimbabwe is the only country in the region requiring these stickers on a normal vehicle. Why? Doesn't a vehicle have rear lights that shine at night?After my polite attempts to reason, the officer "mercifully" brought the fine down to $20. I guess I had to be very thankful for not receiving an illegal $40 dollar fine ($20 is the max spot fine as I have found out).

My companion, who wanted to take photographs of the roadblock and officers was threatened with arrest, because it is apparently "illegal" to do so. If it had not been for my passengers who really wanted to see the Falls and my pre-booking of our stay, I would have, once again, turned around and gone back to Botswana via Pandamatenga for a cheaper

holiday. It goes beyond reason, that Zimbabwean authorities would alienate tourists when the immediate "competition" (Botswana), that has similar attractions, welcome tourists with open arms!

My conclusion was that however hard you try to oblige and respect every road requirement/rule, the police will (creatively) find an excuse to exact a penalty (or worse) and one has to include this frustrating eventuality into your budget when considering a visit to Zimbabwe. Even though a return trip to Zimbabwe will always remain on my wish list, my advice to all my friends who make enquiries about a potential trip to Zimbabwe, is to rather spend their time and money in Botswana or Namibia. There are no cops scaring the fear of God into a 10-year old!

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