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Commuter Misery as Harare Bus Operators Strike

Commuters stranded after transport operators cut services in protest at government order to slash fares.
By Hativagone Mushonga
Last Wednesday was a sad day for Harare’s commuters, many of whom had to walk home for long distances or sleep rough after transport operators suspended services in response to a government directive to slash all fares by more than half.

Commuters were stunned after a hard day’s work on July 11 to find all bus terminuses swarming with people, but no commuter buses in sight to ferry them home. Those who were unable to walk had to endure a cold night on the capital’s dusty streets.

The scenes of commuter chaos were part of the escalating crisis caused by President Robert Mugabe’s government directive to traders on June 26 to slash commodity and fuel prices in an attempt to stop runaway inflation, which currently stands at 4,500 per cent.

Zimbabweans face food shortages and many stores lie closed or empty, as panic-buying causes goods to sell out and traders withdraw their products, unwilling to sell them at low prices.

Fuel supplies have also diminished since the government slashed fuel prices to 60,000 Zimbabwe dollars (just under 50 US cents at black market prices) per litre, and long queues have formed at the few stations still receiving deliveries from the National Oil Company of Zimbabwe.

The government has also announced that for journeys of less than ten kilometres, commuter operators should now charge 10,000 ZWD per fare, instead of the 30,000 ZWD they charged before the directive. Other fares have been similarly cut.

The authorities have threatened to revoke licences of public transport companies if they fail to comply with the government directive, and at least 49 commuter buses were impounded last week and their drivers arrested for overcharging passengers.

Close to 2,000 traders and business officials have been arrested in recent days for defying the price cuts. Transport bosses have said they will rather suspend their services than charge the new fares and will only resume operating if government guarantees them cheap fuel.

Last week, this resulted in mothers with children on their backs, toddlers and the elderly walking home - some facing journeys of 20 kilometres or more. On all routes out of the city centre, streams of despondent people could be seen trekking home.

This IWPR reporter also had to walk home with her three-year-old daughter, after collecting her from a crèche late in the afternoon. Although it was only a ten km walk, her little girl was confused as to why she had to walk home on a cold night.

Other commuters trying to get home to far-off places like Chitungwiza, a town 30 km south of Harare, were reduced to begging motorists for lifts at every traffic light along the Seke Road route.

A top official from the President’s Office told IWPR last week that he was saddened and almost in tears as he watched commuters to Chitungwiza clamouring for lifts from motorists.

“It was really frightening to see the desperation and sadness on people’s faces when they came to my window. It also scared me - the level of desperation - and I had to quickly lock my doors. They were opening the doors. I feel for them because I just don’t know how they are going to get home,” he said.

Asked if things were going to improve soon, he shook his head and said, “I just don’t know. It’s tight and it’s going to get worse. That’s all I can see.”

One commuter, Peter Madziva, faced the prospect of sleeping rough that night. He said that slashing prices in a bid to control inflation has only made matters worse.

“This is the final straw for me because I might not be able to go home tonight. I wonder where I am going to sleep and it is so cold. I would pay three times more the old fare if I could get a lift now,” he said.

Madziva wondered if Mugabe knew what havoc he had caused by slashing prices by half, “I wish he could just drive around the streets of Harare now and see his people - see how they are suffering. I wonder if he will shed a tear or just look away and pretend he didn’t see anything.”

Some commuters interviewed by IWPR on the route to Chitungwiza said they may not go to work until the public transport situation improved. They say it’s also likely that schools will be hit by absenteeism until the situation normalises - if it ever does.

Meanwhile, the fuel crisis has also affected the city’s ambulance service, which is now demanding fuel from ordinary citizens to ferry their sick to the hospitals.

One family in the low-income suburb of Kuwadzana recently reported having to find ten litres of fuel for an ambulance so that a relative with cancer could be rushed to Harare Central Hospital after her condition worsened.

Until the current economic crisis is solved, ordinary Zimbabweans face having to endure further serious shortage of basic commodities as well as the prospect of many more long walks home in the winter cold.

Hativagone Mushonga is the pseudonym of an IWPR journalist in Zimbabwe.

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