Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Public Transport Now a Luxury

With bus fares spiralling, many people are forced to walk long distances to and from work.
By IWPR Srdan
When the eighteenth century satirist Jonathan Swift allegedly coined the proverb "It never rains but it pours", he could not have forecast how aptly it describes Zimbabwe's worsening situation.

Except that in Zimbabwe it does not simply pour, it comes down in buckets. It is how most urban dwellers feel right now after private commuter transport fees, together with most basic commodities, increased astronomically at the same time as the introduction by the central bank of a new 100,000 Zimbabwe dollar note.

It keeps getting worse for the majority of Zimbabweans who are finding it difficult to make ends meet as a result of President Robert Mugabe's economic and political policies. As inflation reached a new record level of 1194 per cent in June - with 2000 per cent forecast by the end of the year - fuel prices nearly double to an average of 300,000 dollars a litre in just one week.

By late June, fuel was hard to find, and what was available on the black market sold for between 500,000 and 700,000 dollars per litre.

These fuel price increases worsen the transport crisis, which now means that many people walk long distances to and from work - if they have work, that is, because in Zimbabwe's ever-collapsing economy the unemployment rate stands at some 80 per cent.

Bus fares in that single week from the sprawling townships of Harare to the city centre were raised to between 70,000 and 100,000 dollars from 40,000 dollars. In Bulawayo, the country's second city, commuter fares have reached 120,000 dollars for a single journey.

What that means in the Monopoly money world of Zimbabwe - where the government can no longer print money fast enough to keep pace with inflation, and where all prices will have increased by the time this article is published - is that your average blue-collar worker needs at least 340,000 dollars for transport to and from work each day. This is in addition to sharp rises in the price of other basic needs such as bread, which saw the price of a single loaf going up to 130,000 dollars from 85,000 dollars in a single week.

And ordinary people can now forget about travelling by bus the 440 kilometres between Harare and Bulawayo. It is now a million dollar one-way ride, and rising.

Life in Zimbabwe's poverty-stricken urban working class suburbs is regressing daily, with people walking between five and 20 km to work and no longer able to afford the traditional breakfast of maize porridge.

Back in the 1970s, the teenage Shorai Mtizwa used to walk distances of ten to 20 km to and from school and her rural home. When she moved to Harare in 1982, two years after independence, she thought the days of those long rural treks were over.

IWPR caught up with Shorai, now 45 and a mother of four, as she walked fast from her workplace in Harare's Graniteside industrial area to the city centre, where she was rushing to catch what has been christened a "freedom train" by local government minister Ignatius Chombo.

So-called freedom trains were launched by the ZANU PF government just before the last presidential election in 2002, in an attempt to woo city residents at a time when transport woes were among the reasons why people had voted in earlier parliamentary elections for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, MDC.

Subsidised fares on the freedom trains are ridiculously low, and follow only the old colonial-era National Railways routes. No new lines have been built and whole suburbs and industrial areas are way beyond the reach of the railways.

So, while Shorai, perspiring and fatigued as she spoke to IWPR, can cover part of her daily journey by train, she cannot afford the minibus fares to cover the other 20 km she has to travel between her home in Mufakose and her workplace. Instead, she walks, like tens of thousands of other impoverished Zimbabwean workers.

Shorai said it would cost her a total of nine million dollars a month to use minibuses between home and work. "I earn around 10 million dollars a month and from that I have to buy food for my family, pay exorbitant water bills, now averaging 2.5 million dollars a month which I cannot even afford, and pay rent," she said. "I have an outstanding water bill of eight million dollars right now. My husband is a security guard and he brings home 5 million dollars. So tell me what choice do I have other than to walk? It is better that I have blisters on my feet than to let my family starve."

To prevent debts accumulating too drastically, Shorai walks her long distances on a near-empty stomach as she can afford only one meal a day.

Before dismissing the IWPR reporter, who Shorai said was slowing her down, she added, "It reminds me of the days when I was at school in my rural home. We used to walk 15 km to school and I thought with independence and coming to Harare, I would never have to walk a distance of more than a kilometre, but now 20 years after migrating, I find myself doing what I ran away from."

Boarding the freedom trains, each with nine carriages, on their limited routes is a nightmare. They are so overcrowded that hundreds of passengers hang precariously outside on doors and windows. To get a seat, it is necessary to rise in the middle of the night and sit down hours before departure. Accidents have already happened and there are fears that a major tragedy is inevitable along the lines of those in India where people travel on carriage rooftops.

Government ministers are spared the indignities of the freedom trains, minibuses or long walks. With the economy in freefall, they travel in top of the range Mercedes, the motor brand of choice of Africa's ruling elite. In May this year, Mugabe bought more than 100 Mercedes Benzes, Toyota Land cruisers and Prados for loyalist parliamentarians.

A month earlier, Mugabe's own new five-tonne, 7.3 litre Mercedes Benz S600 - built in Germany at a cost of more than 600,000 euro and specially armoured to withstand rocket and grenade attack - arrived on a truck from the South African port of Durban.

The vehicle was ordered before the European Union instituted sanctions prohibiting this sort of trade with Mugabe and his cabinet.

The new Mercedes, with dark tinted windows, features at the centre of Mugabe's huge motorcade of trucks and sports utility vehicles packed with heavily armed soldiers, ambulances and sedans carrying plainclothes Central Intelligence Organisation agents. Because of the sirens that blare from the dozens of motorcycle outriders, the motorcade is colloquially known as "Bob and the Wailers".

When the convoy sweeps down a road in Harare or anywhere else in the country, all other vehicles are forced to pull to the side and stop. The regulations state that "the driver of every vehicle on the road on which a state motorcade is travelling shall halt his vehicle". It is a crime to make rude gestures or comments as the convoy passes by.

Nonthando Bhebhe is the pseudonym of an IWPR contributor in Zimbabwe.

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