Kombi war escalates

HARARE - Allegations of police corruption came to the fore yesterday, as hundreds of public transport workers — commonly known as hwindis — protested by grounding their vehicles South African-style.

Tired of being fleeced by both the police and Zanu PF-aligned thugs masquerading as rank marshals, drivers and conductors in Chitungwiza yesterday took matters into their own hands in the country’s third most populous urban area.

With such organised pickets by public transport operators rare in Zimbabwe, some of the protestors said they were taking a leaf from South Africa, where operators use their influence and numbers to make their point.

And as the demonstrations took hold, it resulted in violent clashes and arrests of several hwindis, which also left thousands of commuters from the dormitory town stranded.

James Sabau, the provincial police spokesperson, confirmed the disturbances.

“I am aware that there were some skirmishes in Chitungwiza. Five people have been arrested and these are people who were trying to force other kombi operators to get involved in the demonstration,” he said.

Although the provincial police spokesperson claimed it was people with unroadworthy vehicles who had organised the protests, drivers who spoke to the Daily News said it was police corruption, which had pushed them to the brink.

With commuter omnibuses withdrawing from the route early morning and grounding the public transport system used by the majority in the town, desperate commuters resorted to private vehicles to get to Harare.

The drivers claimed the police, who have mounted six roadblocks on the 30-kilometre Chitungwiza-Harare stretch, were charging them a $5 “passage fee”.

“It was a demonstration against corrupt traffic police. Just imagine, there are six roadblocks from Chitungwiza into town. We are stopped at all the roadblocks and police ask for a $5 bribe. We have tried to engage the authorities, but to no avail,” one kombi driver said.

In the ensuing fracas, combative transport operators confronted police at the “numerous” stops and forced them off in an unprecedented occasion.

They also stopped other kombis, who were plying the route, forcing crew members to join in the protest.

To cushion themselves against runaway “corruption”, which is said to have created a clique of affluent police officers, omnibus operators say they had increased bus fares from $1 to $1,50, but the money was still creamed by corrupt cops.

An official with the Greater Harare Commuter Omnibus Operators’ Association said they were worried about the issue of bent cops and numerous roadblocks on the city route.

“Yes, l can confirm that there was a demonstration by our members in Chitungwiza over roadblocks, but we are still to get finer details on what really happened. The demonstration was, however, unsuccessful because it was not properly coordinated. Though, we are still concerned about the number of roadblocks on roads leading into town,” Brian Zindere, an association committee member said.

On the other hand, Sabau insisted his force does not condone bribery nor corruption in any way, hence it had introduced several measures to stop the scourge.

“We do not condone corruption and it was decided that if we put many roadblocks then people who claim that they were made to pay $5 (they) will not be able to do so on five roadblocks. It is people with unroadworthy vehicles, who corrupt some officers,” he said.

Yesterday, it was only riot police intervention, which saved the day as they forced kombis to ferry stranded crowds into town.

After a visit to the southern and populous town – just after the morning peak-hour – scores of people were still crowded at bus-stops, as police units armed with baton sticks directed public transport operators to carry people to work.

The latest stand-off between police and commuter omnibus drivers comes hard-on-the-heels of another one involving the infamous Chipangano group, which has also been in the habit of robbing omnibus workers.

Last week, transport operators lodged an extortion complaint – ironically with the police – against rank marshals drawn from the notorious group, which is closely linked to the former ruling party.

In that episode, kombis leaving city termini controlled by the self-styled vigilante group were required to pay $2, while those plying the Chitungwiza route were paying $3.

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