COULD the re-introduction of the Zimbabwe United Passengers Company (Zupco) buses mark an end to the chaos, profiteering and tout menace within the local public transport sector?
Touts, for instance, have for long caused untold suffering to commuters, both male and female, young and old, at bus termini. They physically and verbally abuse travellers, forcing them to board certain buses or forms of transport in addition to dictating unrealistic transport fares.
The higher the touts charge commuters, the healthier their “touting commission”.
The typically barbaric and illegal substance abusing group often brag about their unruly behaviour and do not show remorse for their ill actions.
In 2017, a Harare man died after he was manhandled by touts while intending to board a bus to Mutare near Roadport Bus Terminus along Robert Mugabe.
The previous year, aggressive touts at Mbudzi Bus Terminus had assaulted and caused the death of a 25-year-old pregnant woman and her unborn baby. The woman wanted to board a Beitbridge bound bus.
Also, a tout was, in 2013, stabbed to death in Bulawayo by a commuter omnibus (kombi) driver during a fight over a $1 touting fee.
Also, for long, women and girls deemed to be dressed skimpily have had their clothes torn. They have been jeered at and have been embarrassed by touts who themselves happen to have awful shortcomings like openly defecating at bus termini.
Who has forgotten about that nasty Copacabana bus terminus incident in which touts literally undressed a lady in a mini-skirt? Not even frequent police arrests have deterred this lot.
National police spokesperson assistant commissioner Paul Nyathi is on record pleading with stakeholders in the legal system to ensure that deterrent penalties are instituted so that the tout menace is dealt with once and for all.
Police records indicate that at least 30 touts are arrested on a daily basis. However, most of them are taken to court and set free after paying meagre fines.
The revived Zupco bus system is swiftly bringing to an end the tout nuisance.
In the past months, Zupco has introduced a number of buses plying different routes in towns and cities around the country.
The parastatal has also introduced buses servicing long distance routes, with plans to add more buses to the fleet already afoot.
Also, they have extended an invitation to private commuter omnibus operators willing to partner them to alleviate the plight of passengers being overcharged in both urban and rural routes by offering subsidised fares.
The call has received an overwhelming response.
A visit by this publication to Zupco offices, last week, revealed that a number of kombi operators are jostling to be contracted to operate under the company’s franchise.
The move, including the fact that the transport company is reclaiming termini, is bringing sanity to the sector by suffocating tout operations.
Professional inspectors and conductors are now responsible for conducting ticket checks at ranks and in buses.
The boarding chaos that was often caused by the foul mouthed touts is slowly becoming a thing of the past.
With Zupco, the elderly are given first priority when boarding, followed by holders of prepaid Transit Access Pass card (tap-cards) and then finally cash paying passengers.
Zupco tap-cards are sold at bus termini and selected retail outlets. They cost between $5 and $10. They can be loaded with cash that suits the commuter’s convenience and financial capacity.
A complete end of the rogue elements at bus stations is nigh.
Zupco requires one to have a minimum of five O-Level subjects, Mathematics and English included, to qualify for employment as an inspector or conductor.
Tadiwa, a gap-toothed seasoned tout operating at the Copacabana bus terminus bewailed the development.
“This is bad for our future. I don’t know what these guys want us to do. I don’t think I can do any other job outside touting. I have been here for years. Zupco is bringing their own people as rank marshals, rendering us jobless. They want educated people and are not interested in our services,” he grumbled.
Unsightly dramas of touts quarrelling with private commuter omnibus drivers over unpaid touting fees are gradually becoming a thing of the past.
The new system has proved that commuters are able to organise themselves at boarding sites.
Innovative commuters have even created WhatsApp groups in their respective neighbourhoods, which they use to post updates of Zupco buses’ schedules and any other related information on their routes.
The buses follow a specific timetable and use designated pick up and drop off points.
Zupco drivers, unlike private kombi operators, do not divert routes in a bid to dodge police roadblocks.
Passenger Association of Zimbabwe (PAZ) president Tafadzwa Goliati spoke glowingly about the Zupco franchise scheme.
“The Zupco programme is a step in the right direction. The programme is good for passengers as it will not only cushion them against exorbitant transport charges, but also from rowdy touts,” notes Goliati.
“At least commuters now have a choice between using private kombis or Zupco buses. Handlers of this scheme should run it efficiently and not let Government down.”
Goliati went on to urge Zupco to work on increasing the fleet in order to be able to meet demand, particularly in remote areas.
A Mabvuku based commuter, Agnes Tapfuma, concurs with Goliati.
“The few buses introduced so far have brought massive relief to us. We just hope they boost the fleet.”
Cheap, reliable & safe
The Zupco sticker is putting smiles on the faces of so many commuters.
For public transport users, the emblem signals affordable and reliable transport.
In addition, Zupco operators have timetables that enable passengers to plan their days and not worst productive time finding ways to get to and from work.
This initiative also comes at a time when private transport operators are charging between $4 and $10 for a distance of between 15 and 40 km. Zupco is charging between $1 and $2 for the same distance.
Before Zupco came in, the search for affordable alternative transport had created unsightly scenes, especially during peak hours.
Imagine the elderly or women butting to board lorries to and from work.
Zupco’s acting chief executive officer, Everisto Madangwa, said they are working on normalising the public transport system. The system and allocation of buses and kombis is scientific.
“We want to register 1 000 commuter omnibuses under our scheme. Of these, 553 will be in Harare and 223 will be in Bulawayo while the remainder will be in other cities. So far, we have registered over 150 commuter omnibuses in Harare while negotiations with other operators are in progress,” revealed Madangwa.
However, he was quick to point out that due diligence will be followed in the registration process.
Basic requirements for a private kombi to join the scheme includes current vehicle licence, vehicle insurance, certificate of fitness and passenger insurance.
“We are not only registering commuter omnibus for the sake of registering, we are also considering vehicle fitness and proper documentation. This is for the safety of our travelling public,” explained Madangwa.
Shortlisted private players are buoyant.
“Zupco has been considerate. They have opened their doors for operating players to join them. This is empowerment and it guarantees continuity,” noted Blessing Mademutsa, owner of Sun City Transport.
Pamushana Africa has already joined the Zupco scheme. The company said Zupco’s terms and conditions are flexible.
Flushing out thieves
By getting rid of touts, it is also hoped that cases of pickpockets will significantly drop, if not end entirely, at bus termini. Some criminal syndicates were masquerading as hype men at the bus termini, thereby making it difficult to detect their felonious activities.
It is difficult for commuters to confront touts for any wrong doing as they often gang up against the offended.
Equally, private transport operators that fail to make the grade in the Zupco scheme for whatever reason face an oblique future.
“I used to do an average of six trips per day, but they have dropped to three since the introduction of Zupco.
I now only get commuters that are in a hurry, otherwise the rest queue and patiently wait for the Zupco buses,” revealed a kombi driver, Matimura Foreman.
Prophets of doom argue that the newly introduced transport system is not viable and will collapse sooner rather than later.
They say the massive overheads incurred in running the business cannot be recovered through subsidised fares.
However, the project’s handlers maintain that the fares make business sense.
To guarantee the smooth flow of business, the Central Mechanical and Engineering Department (CMED) is sourcing and providing fuel for the Zupco fleet.
It is argued that this will go miles in helping to stabilise fuel prices in the country as a “sizeable chunk of fuel that is illegally channelled to the black market is often consumed by private kombi operators ,who in turn, pass the cost to passengers”.
Zupco used to be the major transport player in the country before Government liberalised the sector in the late 90s.