Feature: Zimbabwe’s informal transport operators feel COVID-19 pinch

Xinhua News Agency | May 23, 2020 at 12:09 PM

by Tafara Mugwara

HARARE, May 23 (Xinhua) -- Trapped inside his house, Whatmore Pasi said hunger will soon knock at his doors without government intervention, as his only means of money-making curtailed and his savings depleted.

"When hunger knocks at your door you have to answer. If you try to ignore the knock, hunger will just knock louder until you give in. You don't want a situation in which hunger has to break the door for you to address it," he said.

Pasi used to work as a commuter omnibus, or "kombi", driver in Harare before informal transport was outlawed in a bid to curtail the spread of COVID-19 in the country.

The father of two, from Epworth, a high density dormitory town south-east of the capital Harare, said the indefinite extension of a lockdown announced by Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa last week has proved to be a final nail in the coffin.

"Most of us here are living hand to mouth," he said through text message. "In this economy you don't eat if you don't kill, and we haven't been in the wilderness since lockdown started almost two months ago."

Pasi said the situation has become dire and in the minds of many locals, hunger is a more lethal threat than the coronavirus.

Pasi is not alone.

With no other means of supporting their livelihoods, some commuter omnibus owners are now using their vehicles as mobile shops.

A former commuter omnibus conductor, Amos Meda recently told the H-Metro newspaper that he is now selling groceries in one of the vehicles he used to operate in.

"This is what has become of us after the ban and we are doing anything to make some money. We have to make use of the kombis because they cannot be idle until they lose value," he said.

Zimbabwe imposed a nationwide lockdown on March 30, and is currently on level 2 of the lockdown which permits some formal businesses to resume operations under strict supervision.

The Southern African country had 56 coronavirus cases including four deaths and 23 recoveries as of Saturday, according to the Ministry of Health and Childcare.

Despite some relaxations of the lockdown, private taxis and commuter omnibuses locally known as kombis remain banned from operating.

State-owned Zimbabwe United Passenger Company (ZUPCO) and operators franchised by ZUPCO are the only ones allowed to provide public transport, although private transport operators who meet ZUPCO prerequisites can register to offer franchised services.

Zimbabwe's Minister of Local Government, Public Works and National Housing July Moyo recently said the ban on privately-owned commuter omnibuses might extend beyond the COVID-19 lockdown.

Moyo said the move is part of government's elaborate plans to de-congest urban centers and modernize Zimbabwe's public transport system.

The development also comes at a time when the government is intensifying efforts to import high volume buses for inner and inter-city travel.

Over the past decade, many Zimbabweans had ventured into the taxi and commuter omnibus business following the collapse of ZUPCO which the government is now trying to revive.

The informal transport sector has also become a lifeline for many young men like Pasi who cannot secure formal jobs given the economic situation in the country.

Roy Bakasa, a commuter who uses public transport almost daily said although he believes that adopting a centrally managed urban transport system is the way to go, kombis should not be banned, but their operations should be regulated to ensure the safety of commuters.

"Banning kombis is not the solution, and that decision will have far reaching consequences.

"By removing kombis on the streets a whole ecosystem will be disturbed -- from kombi owners, drivers, conductors, touts -- all these people will lose their jobs, and at this moment the last thing the government wants is a situation in which destitute testosterone-filled youths will have no option but to join the ranks of the unemployed forces," he said.

Bakasa said while banning kombis might bring sanity in urban centers, ZUPCO can't meet the number of commuters.

Government recently made calls to private operators to join ZUPCO for them to resume work during the lockdown.

However, not all private transporters will join ZUPCO since their vehicles have to meet certain standards for them to be accepted.

The Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum recently said in a statement that forcing private transport operators to register under ZUPCO was an unfair practice and would greatly inconvenience both employers and their commuting employees.

"This has resulted in a critical shortage of transport for workers commuting to and from their respective places of employment. As a result, most employers have enlisted transport companies to ferry their employees to work and back, which is an additional cost on companies that are trying to resume operations," read the statement.