By Rumbidzai Dube
Zimbabwe is commemorating the 16 days of activism against gender based violence, and the key message is “From Peace in the Home to Peace in our communities: ‘Promoting safe spaces for women and girls.’ Safe spaces are secure spaces. They are spaces in which human security-the totality of all conditions that make a human being feel secure-is guaranteed. They are spaces in which women and girls are free from fear and free from want. These spaces are about the protection of women and girls from unnecessary harm and exposure to risky circumstances. The majority of women, men and children in Zimbabwe use the public transport system and the levels of risk they are exposed to within that system have precipitated my blog.
Sometime in March, while aboard a New York taxi, I learnt that there is something called the Livery Passengers’ Bill Of Rights. The Bill gives passengers the following rights to:
- Ride in a car that is clean, in good condition and has passed all required inspections.
- Be driven by a TLC (Taxi and Limousine Company) licenced driver in good standing whose licence is clearly displayed.
- A safe and courteous driver who obeys all traffic laws.
- A quiet trip. Free of horn honking and audio/radio noise.
- Receive a fair quote from the dispatcher and pay that amount for your ride (unless the fare changed).
- A driver who does not use a cell phone while driving (hands free phones are not permitted).
- A smoke and scent free ride.
- Air conditioning or heat on request.
- Working seatbelts for all passengers (please use them!).
- Not share a ride unless you want to.
- Be accompanied by a service animal.
- Decline to tip for poor service.
I am sure many Zimbabweans are wondering how passengers in New York can have as many rights in their transport Bill of Rights as we have in our constitutional Bill of Rights? What we need to interrogate is why New York chose to make what seems like a very unimportant issue so very important.
First of all, in New York as in Zimbabwe the majority of people cannot afford owning cars. Whereas in New York buying a car is not as difficult as maintaining it (including the taxes and parking fees), many Zimbabweans simply cannot afford cars. That is why a functional public transport system is critical.
Second, the ability to access a clean, safe and secure alternative mode of transportation is central to guaranteeing the safety of the residents of New York. It is also central to the productivity and development of the city as residents commute between their homes and work, 24 hours a day.Similarly, Zimbabwe needs a functional system to keep our economy going.
The more I have listened to the grievances about combis (commuter omnibuses) and the service they give to my fellow Zimbabweans, the more I have wondered how many of them would be out of business if a similar bill of rights existed in Zimbabwe.
- Clean car in good condition: How many times have you been in a dirty combi or taxi, dusty even that you had to use tissue to wipe the seat before you sat? How many times have you seen combis and taxis that look like they want to fall over on one side? How many times also have you been in a combi or taxi that feels like the moment the driver changes the gears, that is the last sputter that the combi is going to give then die…on the spot? The combis are health hazards, so much that if anyone gets a cut from the edges of the folded aisle seats while dropping off or getting onto the combi, they need to get an immediate Tetanus shot.
- Licenced drivers: We know that many combi and taxi (mshikashika) drivers are unlicensed. In investigations following one of the accidents in Chitungwiza, it emerged that the driver was unlicensed. The majority of those who are currently licensed need a retest because they either procured their licenses through fraudulent means and never actually had proper driving tests or they have been driving hazardously for so long they have forgotten what the correct and proper procedures on the road are. When they get to the police and are asked for a licence, they produce a piece of paper with $5 or $10 or $20 stuck in the middle and police officers immediately forget what they were asking for.
- A safe and courteous driver who obeys traffic laws: That is something you do not see among combi and taxi drivers. What you see are near death experiences in which 98% of the time the combi drivers are in the wrong. Passengers sit and grit their teeth as their drivers overtake where there are continuous lines (clearly saying do not overtake), break the rules and drive up the wrong lanes in opposing traffic, shoot through red robots (traffic lights), filter into traffic at the wrong time forcing other drivers to hit their emergency brakes, skip over speed humps (not slowing down as they should) and turn dangerously close in front of oncoming traffic. I always say, if our roads had traffic cameras, which award automatic fines to a license plate as penalties for every road traffic offence, then our government would not need to tax us (law abiding citizens). They would generate all the revenue needed just from traffic fines.
- A quiet trip. Free of horn honking and audio/radio noise: This is one right where those who use public transport daily would agree with me that the adage “if wishes were horses then beggars would ride” applies. From the loud urban grooves sounds of Stunner singing “Tisu Mashark,” to the Zim Dancehall vibes of “Tocky Vibes” and the legendary Winky D, to the lewd sounds of Jacob Moyana singing “Munotidako,” the combi drivers “blast” (literally) the music. They play the music so loudly that anyone trying to have a conversation has to shout. Some drivers are courteous enough to turn down the volume when they see a passenger talking on the phone but the majority could not be bothered. When passengers sometimes request they turn down the volume they are told “Tenga yako kana usingade zvenoise” –“Buy your own car if you have a problem with the noise.”
- Receive a fair quote from the dispatcher and pay that amount for your ride (unless the fare changed)-The dog eat dog mentality that has permeated our society also affects public transport operators. Although certain fares are known i.e. it should cost $0.50 from the city centre to any residential surburbs in Harare using combis, the combis always take every opportunity available to charge more. If it is raining the fare goes up to a $1, during rush hour when everyone wants to go home-suddenly the fare also goes up to $1, if there is a big event somewhere (a soccer match, a Makandiwa judgement day) suddenly all operators want to carry passengers to that route reducing the numbers of buses available on the normal route-those that remain want to charge $1 because those going to the “hot and busy” route also charge $1. Nobody constantly monitors and enforces fares.
- A driver who does not use a cell phone while driving (hands free phones are not permitted): Dream on! Some drivers do not only talk on the phone as they drive, they even text; what with all this WhatsApp business.
- A smoke and scent free ride: Luckily Zimbabwe has very strict laws against public smoking and so in this instance public transport users are covered. I can’t say the same for the smell issue though because the buses are not always clean. Sometimes the problem and source of discomfort is not with the bus itself but the sweaty armpit of the conductor, stuck in someone’s nose as the conductor squeezes himself tightly between the door and the passenger on the edge of the first seat behind the driver’s seat.
- Air conditioning or heat on request: Again, dream on! Some combis and taxis do not even have functional windows; the windows are broken, missing, stuck and won’t open, not proper windows but rather cardboard paper or furniture boards. The ventilation is either poor creating a stifling environment or the wind lashes the passengers’ faces.
- Working seatbelts for all passengers: What seatbelts? This is why in many accidents the passengers on the front seat fly though the windscreens while the driver survives. At police roadblocks, the police are concerned with the driver putting on his seatbelt and are not bothered about the safety of the passengers seating next to the driver without their seatbelts on. RATIONALE: the driver can pay a bribe if he is caught not wearing his seatbelt; it is harder to solicit for bribes from passengers-you never know who they are, right?
- Not share a ride unless you want to: Huh! Dream on. Not only are passengers forced to share but they share with more people than is necessary. Packed like sardines, seats that should accommodate 3 people have 4 people on them. The situation gets worse if one of the passengers is a big person; never mind if there are two big people in one row of seats. They end up squashed to each other, literally sharing body fluids (sweat). I used to shout at the drivers many times when they tried to fit a 4th person in the front seat. It was bad enough that the seatbelts were dysfunctional and the risk of flying out through the windscreen if the driver suddenly applied his brakes was high, but to share the seat meant for two people with a 3rd person, practically sitting on your lap was an added annoyance.
- Be accompanied by a service animal: Service animals are specially trained animals (mostly dogs)meant to help people with disabilities e. g. visual impairment, hearing impairment, mental illness, diabetes, autism, seizures and others. This greatly improves the safety and security of persons living with disabilities as they navigate their way using public transport. In Zimbabwe, not only do we not have such service animals but as it is animals are not allowed on public transport. Besides the animals, fellow human beings are not very helpful to the disabled. Many combis avoid carrying paraplegics arguing that they have no space for wheelchairs; when it truth they want to use that space to carry goods that will get them more money.
- Decline to tip for poor service: Well we don’t have to worry about this one because the service is guaranteed to be poor. No tips coming! Or going!-whatever the case may be.
Clearly the combi structure of providing public transport in Zimbabwe is problematic on many levels.
- There is no uniformity in the quality of service.
- There is no guarantee that passengers will get their change as some conductors assault or insult passengers for demanding change.
- There is no guarantee how long the trip will take as there are no strict timetables.
- The combis are not maintained to the same standard. Some buses are fully serviced while others have broken seats, torn interiors, missing windows.
- The system of licensing is not properly monitored as the police take bribes instead of enforcing the law.
- The buses are overcrowded.
- The fares are not strictly standardised, monitored and enforced.
What is the solution?
The Minister of Transport, Obert Mpofu suggested banning the combis. But to me that pseudo-solution would only create more problems. The reality is that:
- Combis constitute the largest transport providers for the majority of Zimbabweans on local routes within cities, between urban centres, between urban and rural centres and some even across borders.
- Combis are a source of employment and income for thousands of combi owners, drivers and conductors and their families.
- In urban centres they also provide employment to a unique group of individuals known as the ‘rank Marshall’s (effectively a group of touts who have dignified their loafing by creating a system of accountability among bus operators by giving them equal turns to ferry passengers in exchange for a $1 for every trip that each combi takes.
- The dynamics become even more interesting when one observes the organised trade that takes place around the different bus termini known as ‘ranks.’ Vegetable, airtime, food and fruit vendors take advantage of the movement of people to and from the combis to do business.
- Urban councils charge these combis for parking and this revenue going directly to the local governance structures.
To create a safe and secure transport system that gives men, women and children the dignity they deserve, Obert and his boys should consider creating a bus service (including combis) that operates on timetable and in line with a set list of rules and procedures observing the strictest standards including proper licensing, full insurance, being roadworthy with a cut-off date for the vehicle life span e.g. Anything older than 10 years should be taken off the roads as un-roadworthy! Every combi should have a bin to throw litter in to avoid littering by passengers, all seats should be properly functional –not broken or torn seats, combis should maintain a set level of cleanliness and hygiene in their interior including having functional heating and air-conditioning, every combi should abide by the regulations on maximum number of passengers to be carried; 3 per seat instead of 4, staff that is helpful to the disabled. In other words, an enforceable look-alike to the New York Passengers Bill of Rights would be a welcome development for Zimbabwe to guarantee citizens safety and security on the roads.