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Commuter Wars: Where Customer Is A Slave

Kenya has the matatus. South Africa brags of sleek commuter taxis. Harare’s roads are a sea of crude commuter omnibuses.  The South African ...

Kenya has the matatus. South Africa brags of sleek commuter taxis. Harare’s roads are a sea of crude commuter omnibuses. 

The South African taxi industry unleashes violence to settle route competitions. In Harare touts wage a different war. Amongst them are saints but they are rare to get noticed.

Before the transport blues, a commuting customer was king. Then, employees employed customer relations to entice clientele. Satisfied, clients returned for a further shuttling experience. 

Traveling on public transport was once efficient, and pleasant. This was earlier than the dearth of a state-backed public transport system. 

The withdrawal of public transport meant that commuters had to use creative means to commute to their respective destinations. Open trucks were convenient to fulfill the demand in mobility. In their wake, private transport operators emerged.

With additional commuters on the roads, service delivery assumed a fresh dimension. Passengers were at the mercy of the rank mobs. Terms were devised at will for the commuting diction. A ‘landlord’ stands for an oversize passenger, and ‘tourist’ indicates customers who overstay in commuters. 

A ‘pot’ refers to a vehicle that has clocked more mileage and yearns for urgent upkeep. As you read, the traveling customer is officially a slave.

Touts became a sensation, seizing the prospect of transport shortages to eke a living. The yelling fellows, shepherding customers into idling commuters was recognized as a profession – determining commuting fares, depending on their daily financial targets and demand. A glut of names was mentioned for their exploits. 

“They seem to have a loudspeaker on their throats,” someone mocked. Thus, they have deserted customer care because they were not schooled in that, either. And their trade thrives.

In the touts’ dominion, they are kings, and partaking on a twist of dagga or illicit brew is tolerated. With cash to spend, touts oddly neglect the grooming process. And the traveling public has to withstand mischievous scents churned by their hostesses. 

A blend of cigarettes, misplaced semen is part of the unsavory dish. But the whiff does not deter a section of attractive, yet desperate women seeking for easy access when transport is scarce.
Touts Harass a Defenceless Woman in Harare 
Their drinking habits are ungoverned, often drinking openly to fuel their work mode. For their untamed excesses, they are a perpetual nuisance and additionally indulge in pestering passengers for leisure. 

Still, their trade has thrived for generations. These characters are a cog in public transport and have transformed into law themselves, prophesying immunity under the influence. 

“Police officers are our friends,” they claim. Private cars picking hikers are mobbed, thereafter the marauding touts solicit for payments for “raiding our passengers” – they own the roads. Conventional buses availed by the state enterprise are failing to satisfy the growing demand of travelers. 

The heavily subsidized fares have increased pressure on buses, putting a burden on the struggling national budget. Early birds wake up before 5 am get a seat and often return home after 8 pm. 

Social life for families has been shattered, leaving little time to interact. Two plies are reserved for passengers standing side-by-side, while surrendering implies standing passengers, balancing to suspended frames in a surrendering posture.

A commuter omnibus has four vital figures: The driver. The conductor. And the paying customer in that order. And the tout is the soul of the vehicle – the culprit yelping for customers’ attention to fill the commuter for a fee. 

Unlike the conductor and the driver, touts are unwaged and are innovative to earn a decent commission. He uses the speed of the vehicle and comfort to attract a decent clientele. The main rival threatening a tout’s survival are police seeking to outlaw the thriving trade.

When coronavirus overrun the world, touts in Harare were paralyzed. Public transport was grounded, their clout to mesmerize passengers at will, was sterilized as pandemic figures spiraled. The majority, accustomed to cashing loads of cash was made redundant with a single pronouncement. 

Their lifestyles cruised from heroes to zeros in a split second. Their favorite stalking spots were forsaken, patrolled by police. And business went silent. Hunters became haunted.

Transporters hired out vehicles to companies as staff buses, but one required a connection to pen a contract. In the end, vehicles were grounded, gathering rust at homes and community garages. 

An availed alternative was to register with the state-run transporter and access fuel allocations while charging determined prices. 

A section took the option, but the majority snubbed the plan completely. Stranded, touts used counterfeit the state-run logos to operate. For a period their veiled missions prevailed, charging above the set fees.

The resolution to avoid the state transport company arose after it previously failed to serve clients, running into liquidation. Further, the returns are below market rates and paid monthly in a volatile economy, rendering the local currency useless. 

Yet, the state insists they have to join the setup or they will glide into extinction. Defiant operators continued to moonlight on respective routes, despite regular police onslaught, arrests, and the possibility of vehicles being impounded.

Operations by the police uprooted the culprits, yet some bribed their way past the prying police. Unauthorized, winding routes were used, though longer, they shuttled passengers to their respective destinations. 

Routes were introduced via shingle roads, avoiding police roadblocks set up along major highways. Security forces demanded letters of employment for those in government or working in essential services only.

Zimbabweans keen to travel during the lockdown were not starved of that chance. People forged corporate letters to evade the embargo. The daring ones wore security apparel to pass through heavily manned roadblocks. Or even donning nursing uniforms for a safe passage. 

A joke was sent around, with people purportedly offering security guards uniforms to allow an easy passage into town. When the lockdown rules were relaxed, a landslide of commuters resurfaced, but commuter operators remain banned. Only registered transporters can now operate.

But touts are not thwarted. The collective is more daring, paying their way past roadblocks to police. With police earning less than $50 a month, they are susceptible to corruption to make a decent living. The loading zones continue to shift, far away from the snooping eyes of the police who continue to solicit bribes. 

Touts now load commuters at will. Once the bosses of the road, touts have been seemingly silenced by the state regulations. But for how long? They are regrouping, ready to reorganize their previous hunting packs to terrorize the traveling public.

But as long as the unemployment rate remains untamed, these characters will surely resurface with or without the state’s blessing. 

Believe you me, they make the stations notable scenes through their rouge actions. In their world, they use the art of coercion and not persuasion. Touts are known to discover new lingos for everyday use. Terms such as shoes have a different meaning. 

To them, it means to run away from the police or simply let’s go. They mastered the art of sealing windows to keep away police. Drivers obey their rascal commands because it ensures their existence. The synergy between conductors and drivers have made the rogue trade thrive for decades.

You have to esteem the manner loaders hang precariously onto speeding vehicles, unleashing daring acrobatic maneuvers when alighting for customers. Any oversight could prove fatal. Police officers have previously attempted to drape on vehicles to apprehend fleeing vehicles. 

This was over bounce, resulting in one dragged for a distance, and sustaining injuries. Some have smashed windows in protest. And some passengers were shot at, while a driver tried to evade arrest at roadblocks.

Touts are humans too. In sorrow, they mourn their kith. When their fellow departs, they showcase their wild behavior. In this trade, sharing is everything. Mesmerized travelers recall when they hijacked a coworker’s coffin atop a car, circling the CBD terminals as a tribute to their own. 

As part of the uncouth, funeral jamboree, intoxicants flow freely. The convoy of cars paraded his remains, this time undeterred by alert police. Some went the extra mile to expose their bodies.

A professional tout requires the ability to harass. Period. Other traits like boozing at work, fleeing from the police and other notorious endeavors will follow later. Color is not a qualification. A white tout turned heads in Harare. 

He naturally turned into an epicenter of ridicule, since most Caucasians are perceived as rich folks. Touts are self-employed, their remuneration is self-determined by the number of loaded cars. At peak hours plus on rainy days, they make a fortune, milking desperate travelers. A crisis often entails a business opportunity.

Touts stack cars, passing over the responsibility to the conductors, a rank higher than them. Conductors occasionally override touts’ decision, changing the script along the way. For instance, he might alter a route to evade police presence. 

And his word is uncontested. The fare may increase and determine dropping stations. No protest or harassment can be meted or dropped off abruptly, before reaching the destination. Luggage fare is determined along the way, often attracting more than humans.
Drivers are nobles of public transport. They speak less and concentrate on the road. Yet, there is a symbiotic relationship between the personnel. Often, a driver was a conductor before, so he knows the demands. 

A driver takes instructions from his lieutenants. A tout is a constant lookout for the police. Conductors determine the daily takings, while a driver discerns the condition of the vehicles. 

Notorious participants have robbed the profession’s glamour, and few women are comfortable. The vulgar words employed renders it impossible for women to fit, but a few penetrated the trade thought they are often scarred with the incessant vulgarities. 

When you finally disembark, you straighten your clothing. The conductor will interject your occupation by suggesting you should buy your car. For the sake of sanity, you ignore his insults knowing you will never beat a fish in the water.

The origins of touts could be traced to long-distance buses, plying village routes. These buses had loaders lifting heavy baggage onto buses, not limited to cement. It demanded muscles, so the trade was reserved for the manly only. Their duties were limited to the manual exhibition only. 

Or checking if passengers had settled their fares. Besides loaders, there was a conductor and the driver. On rural-bound coaches, loaders ascended to the crest, with the bus in motion to arrange loads for offloading. They risked their lives for efficiency and expediency. When private commuter taxis were introduced, touting took over.

On public holidays, they multiplied, unleashing terror and theft. The state tried to institute arrests of touts or loaders to safeguard travelers. By then, the vocation had been immortalized. To date, they are permanent to the Zimbabwean traveling public. It will take ages to fix the transport system chaos, meanwhile, touts are part of it. 

The advent of the freedom trains rolling on the old tracks, courtesy of the railway company once brought relief to the public. Civil servants, were among the bulk of commuters, electing to use this means of transport considering their meager earnings. 

And again, the pricing was absurd, forcing the service to paralyze once more. For now, freedom is distant for the commuting public.

Police zealously to pursue touts, but the adventure is failing. They understand the Houdini act. They have become part of the public transport system, with or without the state’s blessing. 

These misfits may have made traveling a hell for commuters, but somehow transporters cherish their vulgar acts, ensuring a regular flow of revenue.

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