Namibia: Battle for Customers Heats Up in Transport Sector

Battle for customers heats up in transport sector

News - National | 2020-01-15

by Okeri Ngutjinazo

MINIBUS and seven-seater operators are at loggerheads in an industry where only one can survive.

With the recent confusion over the restriction of seven-seater buses that have now been allowed to operate on long-distance routes, minibus drivers are calling for regulation, claiming that they are losing business.

A minibus takes two to three hours, if not more, to load enough customers to travel, while within less than an hour a seven-seater can fill its seats. Because of this, minibus drivers are struggling to survive in this industry, which they once dominated.

The Namibian went to some of the loading areas and spoke to a few drivers.

Loadmaster at Monte Christo service station in Windhoek, Johannes Iipinge, has been working in the industry for 14 years. He said the business has changed in the last five years, despite once flourishing.

Loadmasters ensure that the vehicles leaving the ranks are roadworthy by checking if the licence disc has expired, and whether there is a fire extinguisher and a spare wheel in the vehicle.

Iipinge claimed that some of the challenges they are facing are because some seven-seaters are poaching their customers, as well as the lack of premises from where they can operate, adding that they have tried asking the ministry of works to intervene.

He said they are presently using a property owned by Engen service station, where they are required to pay N$1 500 every year.

The municipality has built a loading zone at Okuryangava for minibuses to operate from but the place is vacant, as drivers believe that it is too far away. In addition, the toilets are always locked at the area and parts of the fence have been vandalised.

"Seven-seaters take our passengers, especially young people who like seven-seaters. If you go to the highway right now, people are standing there waiting for seven-seaters, but before they just came to the buses," he said.

On the scene, there were eight buses, with only one loading passengers while the others stood empty. Vendors were walking around trying to sell airtime and portable chargers.

Iipinge, however, says they have managed to stop seven-seaters from operating in the area, insisting they would also have to pay the N$1 500 fee.

Some of the issues attributed to these operators are the speed at which they drive, which could endanger other drivers on the road or cause accidents.

Natangwe Mupupa, a minibus driver, said the reason seven-seater and minibus drivers speed is that they fail to fill their vehicles when they initially load, so they rush to the next town to get the next customer. He charges N$270 to travel to the north.

"That's where the trouble comes in, because speeding causes a lot of damage. But, if we can load and drive full, then there is no need to speed. You will drive at 100km/h, because you also want to save on your fuel," he said.

Mupupa, who is the family's sole breadwinner, says there are sometimes scuffles to grab a customer and fill the vehicle.

"At every key point where people are looking for transport, there will be a seven-seater, which makes it difficult for us. Especially for us, as we will travel without any customers. We also pay for logbooks for kilometres travelled, which does not apply to seven-seaters," he said.

SCUFFLE FOR A DOLLAR

At B1 City mall, situated along Independence Avenue, opposite the Katutura Intermediate Hospital, the tension between seven-seater and minibuses is quite visible.

Upon arrival, while this journalist spoke to the rank manager, Edison Handura, we witnessed him giving a minibus driver a tongue-lashing after he parked his vehicle at the entrance of the loading zone.

Handura later explained that when he is not around, the minibus drivers do as they please and park their vehicles there to get the customer before a seven-seater driver does.

"The seven-seaters park in front of our rank, so our problem is that when a customer gets out of a taxi they (seven-seater operators) immediately grab them. We are disturbed by them, that's why we stand in the driveway instead of the shade built for us," he says.

Handura also says the owner of the Bonjour service station allows the seven-seaters to operate from his business premises. A sign, translated in local languages, runs at the entrance of Bonjour encouraging passengers to seek assistant from loadmasters.

"Passengers, please make use of the loadmasters dressed in red overalls."

Handura says there are also 'zula boys', who stand by the highway looking for customers and they have written to the police complaining about their actions.

The so-called 'zula boys', who either operate seven-seaters or look for customers on their behalf, stand by the highway heading to Okahandja. Curious after seeing the camera, the 'zula boys' decided to give their side of the story.

Gathering in a small circle, Vincent Tjombe said they accommodate customers who do not have enough money to travel, adding that passengers choose them because they do not want to wait and want to easily reach their destination.

"Passengers come voluntarily. We don't disturb people's peace. We look for customers for other vehicles and the drivers give us something for helping them. We are just trying to survive," Tjombe said.

The others chimed in that they would rather do this than go back to the streets and not have a job. While speaking to these 'zula boys', a private vehicle travelling up north stopped by looking for passengers. One of the 'zula boys' climbed into the private vehicle to assist the driver with customers down the road.

Tjombe said they also helped private vehicles look for passengers. He further said at roadblocks, the police do not question the passengers in the private vehicles, as they look like family members of the driver.

Another seven-seater operator, who preferred to remain anonymous, said they are not taking over anyone's business but complained that the traffic fines are weighing them down.

The Road Transportation Act (Act 74 of 1977) states that no motorcar shall be used between towns to transport passengers for reward. Due to this law, seven-seaters without permits are being fined a hefty N$4 000 for disobeying this regulation. However, those with permits cannot celebrate evading this fine, as they have only been given a six-month grace period to operate with those permits before they are restricted to municipal borders.

Some of the seven-seaters at B1 City mall complained that the minibus operators work in cahoots with road traffic officers to give them tickets or strip the discs or permits from their vehicles.

CONTROL OVER SERVICE STATIONS

The final stop was at Triple J loading zone, which transports passengers to either Groot Aub or Rehoboth. There, the minibus operators park their vehicles next to an open area, a place normally used by municipal buses.

They are not allowed to operate at the service station but some seven-seaters operate from there. When The Namibian arrived to speak to the driver, like at Monte Christo, seven buses were standing idly with only one loaded with passengers.

Torella van Wyk said it takes a vehicle nearly three hours to load passengers.

ROADWORTHY CHECK

According to data relating to public transport crashes from the Motor Vehicle Accident Fund (MVA), public vehicles account for 13% of crashes on average, while minibuses and seven-seaters, which are categorised under sedans, account for 49% of crashes on average.

"Seven-seaters and minibuses are, therefore, of high risk with the increased number of passengers they carry," the fund's chief executive, Rosalia Martins-Hausiku, said.

She further said the fund recently introduced a Green Dot Programme, a self-check policy among public transport associations.

The purpose of the programme is to ensure increased road safety education and information campaign activities at terminals, roadblocks and through different communication media.

Among the prioritised aspects are induction of drivers on pre-trip inspections, which include vehicle tyre checks on pressure and depth, vehicle emergency exits, fire extinguishers and the importance of a complete passenger list.

"The Green Dot Programme undoubtedly complements national law enforcement operations, and is being implemented by role players in collaboration with public transport associations to mitigate potential consequences of crashes, injuries and fatalities," she said.

The fund's role with the operations of minibus and seven-seater drivers stems from the point of compensation, support and coordination of treatment and rehabilitation of those affected by road crashes.

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