By Victor Maphosa
Laxity and corruption at police checkpoints have seen some long-distance conventional buses and commuter omnibuses illegally operating in flagrant violation of Covid-19 national lockdown.
The lockdown measures, which temporarily banned intercity travel, were introduced to curb the spread of Covid-19, but bus crews are allegedly bribing police officers on the roads to gain passage.
On February 15 this year, President Emmerson Mnangagwa extended the national lockdown Level Four by another two weeks as the country seeks to ensure that deaths from Covid-19 further come down, while giving health professionals time to investigate and monitor the presence of new variants of the virus.
The measures included banning of intercity and inter-provincial travel.
Regardless of the President’s directive and the statutory instruments barring intercity travel, some public transport operators have since resumed business in disregard of the regulations.
Almost daily, commuter omnibus crews plying the Harare-Mutoko Highway engage in a cat-and-mouse game with the police along Samora Machel Avenue, opposite Holiday Inn.
As soon as the police move to other points, they capitalise on their absence and ferry passengers, before driving off.
The same is also happening on a daily basis along the Harare-Bindura road, where some buses and kombis ferry passengers from Harare to areas like Mt Darwin and Muzarabani.
At Mbudzi roundabout along the Harare-Masvingo Highway, public transport operators ferry passengers in broad daylight, raising questions on the seriousness of officers entrusted with enforcing the lockdown measures.
Once the passengers board the buses, exemption letters are not a requirement as the crews are the ones who “deal” with the police at checkpoints.
A Herald reporter went undercover and boarded a Gokwe-bound conventional bus owned by a local operator using the name “Seasons Coaches”.
The bus departed Harare around 11am on February 23, destined for Chitekete in Gokwe.
This writer joined shop owners and vendors who had come to Harare to buy goods for resale.
Season Coaches picks passengers and goods at Stodart Hall in Mbare and charges US$15 from Harare to Gokwe.
After boarding the bus at Harare Showgrounds bus stop, the reporter paid the fare and was issued with a ticket (Number 1622) inscribed Seasons Coaches.
The bus picked up a few other passengers at the showgrounds illegal bus stop, in full view of police officers patrolling the area.
Touts also swarmed the bus, bringing in more passengers for a fee.
The reporter asked a member of the bus crew how someone without an exemption letter could be assisted at police checkpoints, but he was assured of smooth passage.
“Just relax, no one will ask for it. Police do not care about letters on these major roads,” came the reply.
While on the bus, most passengers were familiar with each other, confirming they were regular travellers who use the bus.
This reporter sat next to a middle-aged woman destined for Gokwe, and a conversation ensued.
During the conversation, the woman who identified herself as Mrs Sibanda, revealed that she was a vendor and had come to Harare to buy wares for her business.
“I buy and sell various goods,” she said. “Today, I came to buy some T-shirts and handbags. We always come here using this bus.”
The bus passed the Norton checkpoint without any glitches, and stopped about 50 metres away to ferry more passengers.
Just after the Kwekwe roadblock near Truck Inn, the bus stopped and those going to Gweru and Bulawayo were told to disembark.
A Toyota Wish was waiting to ferry them to their final destinations.
The bus made a U-turn before it passed through the same roadblock and turned left heading for Gokwe.
At a roadblock just before Zhombe Business Centre, the bus was stopped by the police and a co-driver disembarked, and briefly talked to a police officer.
He handed the officer some money in full glare of the passengers, but the reporter could not establish the amount.
At Bomba Shopping Centre, some 20km before Gokwe Centre, all the passengers were ordered to disembark after the bus crew got information that the only team of officers who had resisted bribes and arrested them the previous week were mounting a roadblock near Gokwe Centre.
Further enquiries by the reporter revealed that there were “unfriendly” and strict officers at a checkpoint before Gokwe Centre, hence the bus crew feared arrest.
Zimbabwe Passenger Transport Organisation (ZPTO) chairperson Mr Samson Nhanhanga condemned those operating during the lockdown.
“As an association, we do support that Government was clear when it ordered us to stop operating,” he said. “All our members are complying with the lockdown (regulations) and if you see anyone disregarding Covid-19 measures, he or she is not affiliated with us.
“All bus operators must comply with the law. If Government says stop, then we must listen. When it opens up the routes for us, we will then resume operations.”
On February 25 in the evening, the reporter boarded a Toyota Hiace commuter omnibus from Gokwe to Empress shopping centre on the return journey.
The reporter could not find transport until 1:45am when the Nissan Caravan commuter omnibus plying the Empress-Harare route arrived.
It was almost half full when the reporter jumped in and was charged US$10 to Harare.
Unlike the Season Coaches bus crew, the Nissan Caravan crew are experts in evading roadblocks.
Where there was a roadblock, the crew would use alternative roads to avoid the police.
But the Norton roadblock was not easy to evade.
Police stopped the crew around 4am yesterday and the driver quickly disembarked, while holding a US$10 note that he handed over to a police officer.
The commuter omnibus was allowed to pass.
Most of the passengers were vendors from Empress business centre coming to Harare to buy their wares for resale.
The Nissan Caravan arrived in Mbare around 5am and entered the gate at House Number 3291, 4th Street.
All passengers disembarked and the kombi crew advised the passengers that the same kombi would leave Mbare back to Empress in the evening.
No sanitisation was done on the conventional bus to Gokwe and the commuter omnibus back to Harare.
A handful of passengers were putting on masks, with a few wearing them correctly.
National police spokesperson Assistant Commissioner Paul Nyathi said they were conducting investigations into the matter.
“Police are conducting investigations into this matter,” he said. “We will give you a detailed response once we are done with our investigations.”
Recently, police warned the public against violating Covid-19 regulations and urged compliance with the regulations in place. The Herald