Pirate Taxis Flourish in Zimbabwe's Capital As War Between Police and Drivers Escalates

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HARARE, ZIMBABWE – The city council is trying to bring order to Harare’s busiest streets.

Swarms of overloaded pirate taxis and commuter omnibuses, which pick up and let off riders at undesignated places at a moment’s notice, put the lives of passengers and pedestrians in the nation’s capital at risk each day.

Hence the city’s efforts in Operation Mshika-shika (Shona slang for “pirate taxi”). In this enforcement action, police throw sharp, wheel-bursting spikes at vehicles flouting the law to stop quick getaways. Dozens of vehicles are impounded each day. Fines are imposed. Bribes are paid.

Pirate drivers, seeking to avoid these problems, screech away fast at the sound of a warning whistle.

“My sister! Move your body from the front of the vehicle! Otherwise you will be mincemeat!” a tout shouts to a woman crossing in front of an illegally parked omnibus.

Touts serve an important role in Harare’s transport system, ushering passengers into vehicles and calling out destinations. They now also use whistles to alert traffic violators that police are nearing, and to warn pedestrians to get out of the way.

Unlicensed taxis “are a menace, and we don’t want them on the street,” says Michael Chideme, corporate communications manager for the Harare City Council. “We have an operation to rid the city of the pirate taxis, but unfortunately they continue to roam our roads because people continue to use them.”

Statutory instrument 41/16 of the Road Traffic (Traffic Signs and Signals) Regulations was introduced in 2016 to deal with the problem. Failing to observe road signs is an offense, punishable by fines, which begin at $20. Violators face prison terms of up to six months.

Charles Mupaso ushers people into a pirate taxi in Harare, Zimbabwe. Mupaso is paid by the taxi drivers to help load passengers.

Linda Mujuru, GPJ Zimbabwe

Laws or not, dangerous or not, the market for pirate taxis continues. And the battle between the police and drivers escalates.

“We are in constant fights with the police and the city council, who always want to impound our vehicles,” says Shepard Gutu, who adds that he makes up to $20 per day from operating a pirate taxi.

Pirate driver Tafadzwa Ngoroma puts the blame on the police and Harare City Council for accidents as drivers flee from police. “If police are not present, there are no accidents that take place,” he says. “But when they come and throw spikes, that is when accidents happen.”

Chideme says the city council impounds about 30 vehicles each day. Owners are charged $6 to $11 a day, depending on the size of the vehicle and the length of time the cars are impounded. “Some people even pay up to $90 and $400,” he says.

Drivers hate impoundment, because they lose the use of the vehicle and therefore lose their livelihood for days.

Ngoroma says bribes can be paid to avoid impoundment. They run between $5 and $20, depending on how well drivers negotiate, he says, whereas impounded cars cost at least $80, and the release of a vehicle can take up to two weeks.

Elias Mapendere, a registered legal practitioner in Harare who has represented several pirate taxi operators, says the Road Motor Transportation Act states that a person can only carry fare-paying passengers if registered as a public service vehicle operator. But, he says, “one is supposed to only pay a fine” for violating the law and he contends that impounding vehicles is unlawful.

Nor is there a legal framework for the use of spikes that police throw in front of vehicles to stop them, Mapendere says.

“The relevant authorities should make sure that there are policies that are user-friendly to the people,” he says.

Delight Gochera, who has been driving a commuter omnibus for nine years on the 25-kilometer (15.5-mile) route from Harare to Chitungwiza, says operators make more money by picking up passengers along the way rather than picking up riders only at the bus terminal. And it’s more convenient for the riders as well.

“We carry people at these places because the bus terminus has no order. hellip; If we go into the terminus, we make fewer trips and [make] less money,” he says.

For some Harare residents, pirate taxis are the only readily available mode of transport.

“It’s easier and more convenient to use the pirate taxis, because I get to move around town easily,” says Talent Ushe, a Harare resident.

In a report in the early 2000s on Zimbabwe’s rail and bus system, the Department of Physical Planning’s chief planning officer noted that the major achievements of pirate taxis are that they open new public routes. The report says the unlicensed taxis are useful in identifying new routes needing a public transport system.

Chideme agrees that a robust, multi-stop bus system would be the best method of reducing the number of pirate taxis. “The bigger battle with the pirate taxi operators can be won if we have a mass bus transport system in place,” he says.

Mapendere agrees, saying it’s difficult to regulate the pickup and drop-off of passengers at undesignated areas because it’s a conscious decision made by two people.

In any case, he says, “the relevant authorities should make sure that there are policies that are user-friendly to the people before enforcing these laws.”

Linda Mujuru, GPJ, translated some interviews from Shona.