Maputo — Without any warning, private transport operators went on strike in the Greater Maputo Metropolitan Area on Monday morning, demanding the right to raise their fares.
Thousands of passengers found themselves unable to go to work because on many key routes there were no buses. Many gave up trying and went home.
The operators say the standard fare charged in Matola city of 13 meticais (about 23 US cents) is no longer sustainable. The fare has been unchanged for the past five years, they say, despite attempts to negotiate with the government.
They say that, with the recent introduction of electronic ticketing, 1.5 meticais of each ticket is subtracted and goes, not to the operators, but to the State's Maputo Metropolitan Transport Agency. So out of a fare of 13 meticais, the bus company only pockets 11.5 meticais.
"We're completely bankrupt. There's no way we can go on operating in the current situation", one operator, Constantino Mauai, told the independent television station, STV. "What's happening is that the State is stealing from the transport operators".
There are now calls from the operators to end the flat rate fares, and switch to charging passengers per kilometre travelled.
Other grievances presented by the operators are the allegedly arbitrary fines charged by the municipal police, and the poor state of the roads in the outlying Maputo and Matola neighbourhoods.
The strike also took by surprise the Mozambican Association of Road Transport Operators (Fematro). The Fematro chairperson, Castigo Nhamane, told reporters that the associates in Maputo and Matola did not bother to tell Fematro what they were planning.
In his discussions with operators on Monday morning, Nhamane found the main protest was the low fares they were allowed to charge. On top of this came the 1.5 meticais they were losing on each electronic ticket.
The Deputy Minister of Transport, Manuela Rebelo, promised that the government will work with the operators to find solutions to the problems they raised. But she wanted them to put their vehicles back on the roads, because they were depriving the users of an important service.
"Imagine the people who had couldn't reach a hospital because of this interruption", she said. "Let's solve the problems that affect us without prejudicing the users".
With the buses off the roads, passengers looked for alternatives. Some were able to crowd onto trains, and some packed onto open trucks (known ironically, as "my loves"). In neither case was there any attempt to impose the social distancing needed to restrict the spread of the Covid-19 respiratory disease.
The operators promised to return to work on Tuesday, while they negotiate with the government and the municipal authorities to find a solution to the dispute, particularly how to handle the electronic ticketing.