The Sunday Mail
Harmony Agere and Veronica Gwaze
If it looks, sounds and drives like a Zupco bus, then it is definitely a Zupco bus.
Well, this might not always be the case.
Apparently, there are private commuter omnibuses that have had the evil genius of finding a way of deceiving law enforcement agents that have been deployed to make sure that they do not operate outside the law.
Government announced on May 16 that private commuter omnibuses had been banned indefinitely.
Only Zimbabwe United Passenger Company (Zupco) buses and those operating under its franchise are allowed to operate.
It, however, has not taken long for the notorious kombi crews to reinvent themselves under the guise of registered franchisees.
Presently, only the Zimbabwe United Passenger Company (Zupco) and commuter omnibuses operating under its franchise are allowed to ferry travellers.
However, the service is failing to meet rising demand, especially at a time when the buses can only accommodate limited passengers as a result of current social distancing measures.
Each bus is expected to ferry a maximum of 32 passengers per trip while commuter omnibuses carry eight.
Also, each bus is subjected to fumigation at least twice a day; thus, the time required to perform the exercise is understood to have greatly diminished Zupco’s ability to operate timeously.
Private-owned commuter omnibuses (kombis) were suspended when the lockdown began on March 30, but the ban has since been extended indefinitely as Government tries to create an organised mass public transport system.
Though noble, the decision is taking a toll on commuters.
Thousands of urban travellers across the country are at risk of contracting the coronavirus as most are resorting to unregulated and often crowded transport.
Banned kombi crews, pirate taxis (mushika-shika) and private motorists have moved in to fill the vacuum.
The Sunday Mail Society bumped into a man in Highfield who had a stash of Zupco stickers.
After making an enquiry, the man became hostile.
“What do you need the information for?” he queried.
We, however, later discovered that he bought the insignia from an informal business centre in Gazaland or paGaza (Highfield).
“It is not kombis alone that are using fake stickers, even some privately-owned buses are operating disguised as Zupco,” revealed Kennedy Zenze, a kombi driver.
His shabbily dressed colleague was quick to add: “The Zupco emblem is all you need for easy passage on the road. During peak hours, there are usually long, winding queues, so passengers use any form of transport that comes their way and rarely complain about fares since they will be eager to reach their destinations with little or no hassle.”
Most commuters who have fallen victim to the fake Zupco buses say the tell-tale signs are both the operating times and the fare.
These rogue operators often charge more than the stipulated fares of $2 and $4 for a bus and commuter omnibus trip, respectively.
They also do not observe social distancing or other recommended health guidelines.
According to current Government policy, buses must ferry a maximum of 32 passengers, while commuter omnibuses are allowed eight travellers per trip.
“It is the passengers’ option. We are not forcing anyone. We do not load every Zupco bus but specific ones. One decides on whether to wait for long in the queues or just make use of the relatively cheaper options. After all, there is no big difference between $4 and $10 compared to convenience,” said Tapfuma Tigere, a tout who recently resumed operations.
But where are these fake stickers coming from? The Sunday Mail Society can reveal that fake Zupco insignia of different dimensions is readily available on the market.
Prices differ with orders, but the cheapest set of the labels for a single kombi is being sold for US$15.
Original Zupco stickers do not have any particular security features and only contain a fleet number, company logo, Zimbabwe Bird and contact details.
Moreover, there is no approved standard size of the labels for conventional buses or commuter omnibuses.
Equally, there is no specific requirement on placing of the sticker on the vehicle.
Automatically, this creates an easy conduit for counterfeit labels.
Apparently, Zupco labels are done by a private contractor — Headline Communications.
“We do not have security features, so it is difficult for passengers to tell which one is fake or genuine,” said Zupco northern division depot manager, Mr Fungai Muchena.
“Each vehicle under Zupco has a fleet number at the front, just below the screen, on the right side. However, on other vehicles, it is on the left side. We are also working on having stickers at the back of each vehicle.”
It is believed that the State-owned entity, which recently severed ties to the other contractor that was engaged to produce the stickers, is presently tightening screws to address the anomaly.
There are suspicions that some of the printed labels are finding their way out through the backdoor.
Headline Communications director Mr Percy Gore said the company has since been given instructions to work on new labels with improved security features.
“I was tasked by Zupco to work on security features. This was after they discovered that certain individuals are creating imitations. I am not sure though who is behind these bogus stickers or the numbers involved. We are also trying to find out,” said Mr Gore.
“The process of creating new features has already begun. We have created some security feature samples that we are set to present to authorities for approval before we embark on mass production,” further revealed Mr Gore.
Passengers Association of Zimbabwe (PAZ) president Mr Tafadzwa Goliati said most commuters are currently in harm’s way.
“The transport shortage is real and people are resorting to these kombis because they have no option,” he said.
“There is real danger that they will contract the virus and further spread it. I do not understand why we are taking a casual approach to this possible catastrophe?”
He believes that Government needs to reconsider the ban.
Investigations to get to the bottom of the scandal are currently underway.
“It is a criminal offence to make use of Zupco logo’s without approval. We cannot rule out that there are people currently doing so. We are investigating so that we flash out the culprits,” said Zupco’s acting chief executive officer Mr Evaristo Madangwa.
“Work on new markers is in progress. They will have security features like water-marks, among other things that our police and passengers can use to distinguish between genuine and fake Zupco buses,” he said.
Mr Madangwa urged the public to report any suspicious operators under their franchise either to them or the police.
“Teams under the operations department are on the ground to investigate some of these issues.
“However, it would help if the public give us leads,” he said.
Asked if the contracted company, including the former, did not have a hand in this confusion, he added: “ . . . as for our printers, our relationship is based on trust. We will be creating split waters if we are to follow-up and check on their operations.”
Jail sentences for offenders
“Some kombis are indeed evading checkpoints or roadblocks by using feeder roads or dropping passengers just before the points.
“We have embarked on an operation targeting them and we will also be arresting those who remove number plates or use wrong number plate types,” said police spokesperson Assistant Commissioner Paul Nyathi.
Greater Harare Association of Commuter Operators (GHACO) secretary-general Mr Ngoni Katsvairo said they have since submitted a proposal to Government to be allowed to operate.
“The idea in the short term is good as Zupco is currently organised and has Government support and resources of dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic,” said Mr Katsvairo.
“However, our biggest worry is how many kombis will Zupco be able to absorb and whether Government will be able to subsidise them all.
‘‘Our understanding is that Zupco is looking to franchise less than 1 500 kombis. What will become of the rest of us?”
Mr Katsvairo said they were prepared to reorganise their operations in line with Government requirements.
“The programme will provide an organised transport system if managed well through making sure that franchisees are paid fees commensurate with the costs of operation, paid and reviewed in time; cheaper spares are organised centrally by Zupco and a fleet upgrade system is urgently put in place.
“Customers will benefit from
the absence of harassment by touts
and better ranking infrastructure investment put in place at the drop and pick-up points.”
Bulawayo Public Transport Association (Bupta) chairperson Mr Morgan Msipa said banning commuter omnibuses completely could affect a sector supporting close to a million people.
“We can organise ourselves and operate under regulations just as Zupco is doing. We will adhere to approved fares and treat our passengers with respect,” said Mr Msipa.
“But to say kombis should go all together is unjust.
“There are over 50 000 kombis countrywide, 50 000 drivers depend on them, 50 000 conductors, 50 000 owners, about 10 000 mechanics and their families. These people can go hungry if we just leave them out just like that.”
Manicaland Transportation Association chairperson Esau Mupfumi reckons dialogue with Government is the only answer to the current crisis.
“We must follow restrictions and guidelines that have been set by Government. But we understand the challenges that our members are facing and we are engaging the relevant ministry for a way forward,” opines Zimbabwe Union of Drivers and Conductors (Zudac) president Fradrick Maguramhinga.
Maintain status quo
Local Government and Public Works Minister Dr July Moyo said nothing changes for now.
“We are a consulting Government, so if there are any official proposals, we will hear them and decide since we have an open-door policy. But as for now, we expect everyone to follow regulations. Zupco will remain the sole operator and those join them can register.”
While Government has invited private operators to join the Zupco franchise, some of them have either failed to pass the Central Mechanical and Equipment Department (CMED) test or are simply reluctant to do so.
Zupco, however, recently added 294 privately-owned buses and kombis to its growing fleet.
But this was only after 326 vehicles and 221 drivers were tested by the CMED. Twenty-four of the drivers failed. The parastatal is targeting to grow its fleet to 1 000 commuter omnibuses and an equal number of conventional buses.
As of last week, Zupco had 637 buses and 752 kombis operating countrywide under its franchise. Surprisingly there seems to be more Zupco buses operating than reflected by figures in their database.