The Sunday Mail
It was a routine journey, the usual 15km or so drive from Glen Norah to Harare’s central business district. All things being equal, this is a 30-minuter for me, from stepping into the car to walking into the office.
Not last Thursday. It wasn’t usual as usual.
After past encounters with law enforcement agents, the police in particular, I have tried my best to make sure my very modest jalopy, a ‘90s pick-up, looks the part when it comes to abiding by the rules and regulations of the road.
So when a police officer flagged me down I didn’t hesitate to hand over my driver’s licence when he asked for it, because I knew that my car, despite being a ‘90s model, was Y2K-compliant.
Fire extinguisher (which is serviced, as per their language), check. Jack, check. Wheel spanner, check. Spare wheel, check. Red breakdown triangles, check. Reflective vest, check.
And I thought I was good to go.
I have read and heard several complaints about police attitudes at road blocks, discussed several of these with my fellow drivers, either over a drink or at the office.
And given past experiences, I have always tried to make sure that I don’t waste any of my precious time with the officers at a road block, so my vehicle is always up to date with all mechanicals and electricals.
The cop made another round. Nothing. A second one. Silence.
Then he came to my door. “Your third number plate has been tampered with,” he said calmly, probably tyring his best poker face.
He asked me to come to the front of the car and see for myself.
After a spate of encounters over the “tampered with third number plate” almost three years ago, I had applied for a replacement third plate.
My folly then, as it turned out last Thursday, was that I stuck the new plate exactly on the same spot where the previous plate had been.
The result is that the new third number plate sits on the remains, rather stains, of the previous plate. I thought this was simple enough for the officer to appreciate, because the stains from the previous plate were visible.
Not so for this uniformed fellow. According to the rule book, he told me, I was in violation of the law and should pay a US$20 spot fine.
As much as I was shocked by the alleged offence, the fine was even more shocking.
Given the previous encounters I have had with traffic police, encounters which have always cost me time and money, I have tried to make sure that my pick-up is always in sound shape.
I have done all electricals; to include the number plate light, the reverse lights, the headlights, the hooter. And even the gross vehicle mass display on the side. Not to mention the “honeycomb” reflectors which I was once fined for, because mine were not “honeycomb”.
And after replacing the third number plate, because it had been “tampered with”. Now this.
I genuinely didn’t have the US$20 fine. If I had, I would have paid – never mind that I felt an injustice was unfolding. Previous encounters have taught me that you simply can’t win with police at road blocks. Just pay and go, even as you protest.
Because I had no money, I sat in my car for an hour before I was asked to go and park my car at Mbare Police Station. I was told I would only get it back after paying US$20.
He gave me his name as Sergeant Chagweda.
He said when I got the money, I should either phone or look him up at the road block.
Three hours later, US$20 in my pocket, I headed back to the road block. Imagine my astonishment when I was told that the fine had somehow reduced to US$15. This was after I told Sgt Chagweda that I had found US$15.
My folly; I should have told him I had scraped together US$10. Perhaps that would have been the new fine.
Having asked a friend to drive me to the road block and then to Mbare Police Station to collect my vehicle, I thanked him for helping at such short notice. With the white ticket in hand, I thought it was going to be as easy as ABC to collect my vehicle.
In the charge office, which had been our last stop when we left the vehicle, I produced the ticket and informed them I had come to collect my car.
“Proceed to the Traffic Section where they will record that you paid the fine and then come back here,” the officer informed me.
It was around lunch hour when I walked into the Traffic Section, and the good men and women of the law were having their drinks and buns.
I was told to go back to the road block and bring the officer who had fined me. He was the one to process the release of my vehicle.
“Let’s see the ticket. It must National Traffic who send people here to collect their cars. Who should do their work for them? They think we are here to work for them?” the police officer rhetorically asked me and her colleagues.
Another was not long in concurring: “He must go back and have the officer who served him to come and release his car, it is not our duty here.”
My mind was now super-active. My friend had gone. I didn’t have money, even for a kombi, to take me back to the road block.
As I was eating myself over this, the first officer, after finishing her lunch, walked out. Several moments later she came back with another officer in tow who seemed to be in charge of the Traffic Section.
He looked me up and down, then asked the officer to process the release of my car.
“But this should be the last one we are processing for today; those guys (at road blocks) should come and finish their work. They think we should be working for them,” this as she filled in some large book.
Some 10 or so minutes later, I was out, car keys in hand.
I was happy that I had my car back.
But I still can’t shirk off the feeling that it seems somehow illegal to drive your car on Zimbabwe’s road.