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The kombi driver mentality: A metaphor for who we choose to be

with Gloria Ndoro-Mkombachoto

There are many young people who were born and raised in a Zimbabwe different from the one that their parents experienced at the same age.

It is a Zimbabwe characterised with hardship, scarcity and general disorderliness. Their mental model is shaped by their own experiences and they cannot imagine, in their wildest dreams, the Zimbabwe of the first 10 years of independence.

We have come a long way. Why do public transport systems of other countries work better than of others? How did we get here? Perhaps, Zimbabwe United Passenger Company (Zupco) should have never been allowed to collapse, or to be run by government in the first place.

Many from among us miss the order and reliability of the public transport system that we got accustomed to growing up, prior to independence. There were designated bus stops, many of which had covered sheds. Inside those sheds, was a bus timetable.

You knew for certain when the bus would arrive, which route it would take and what time you would arrive at your destination.

If a friend or family member lived in another area along the bus route, you knew exactly what time they should expect your bus to arrive, so that they could join you on the bus ride. Planning around the bus transport system was easy.

There was a bus stop outside my mum’s house and we knew for certain that the bus would take 20 minutes to get into town on our preferred route. The bus transport system was orderly, organised, predictable and planned. It made us that too.

The bus drivers were mature people who wore smart uniforms and greeted everyone as they boarded the bus. They were professionals who were proud of their trade. There was no such thing as over-speeding because these bus drivers adhered to speed limits.

Although they were monitored, they primarily self-regulated. They understood that the cargo they were carrying was priceless and precious. They valued human life in and outside the bus. As far as I can remember, I never saw a bus parked at the side of the road because it had broken down or stopped due to an accident.

Enter the deregulation of the transport system and legalisation of the commuter omnibus transport system. The rules changed, for the commuting public and the other motorists.

Deregulation of the public transport system was rolled out in 1993 as part of the Economic Structural Adjustment Programme (Esap) in 1990. There had always been private owners within the 76-seater bus transport system, but these catered for long distance travel within and outside Zimbabwe.

Deregulation allowed entrepreneurial private owners operating smaller buses: 28-seater minibus, 15-seater omnibus and seven-seater emergency or pirate taxi, to enter the urban public transport sector in order to augment services provided by the then monopolistic Zupco.

When free enterprise was allowed to enter the market, government-owned the Zupco fleet consisting of 28-seater minibuses and 76-seater buses.

The two-seater minibuses were popular but were frequently breaking down and the 76-seater fleet was increasingly becoming unpopular because they were perceived slower, ageing, with no replacement of the old fleet by new buses.

The increased capacity from the new private owners soon became very popular and highly competitive in addition to reducing waiting times of commuters.

With those benefits, however, scheduling of service provision was lost and the capacity to monitor was compromised. Over time, fares increased and accidents spiked. Although the emergency/pirate taxis exist, they were actually banned by government in 1997.

In present day Zimbabwe, many urban and rural commuters rely on kombis. There are more kombis on the road than any other mode of public transportation. The kombi has become an institution and a way of life for many people across the country — young and old.

The kombi came into operation with its own ethos different from what my generation was accustomed to growing up. It is what happens inside the kombi that I am gripping about this Sunday.

Not so long ago, I was driving in Greendale with two employees. They had been stuck at a garage in Msasa with no money, food or beverage after realising that the vehicle they use for work would take days, not just a few hours to fix.

I bought them pies, water and juice which I allowed them to eat in my car. After they finished eating, they opened the windows and threw out the garbage. On realising this, I quickly got off the road, swiftly applied the brakes, unlocked the car and asked them to go and pick up the waste they had just thrown onto the pavement.

They hesitated for a while and one had the cheek to remark, “what is the big deal, we do it all the time when we are riding the kombi?” To which I replied, “This is not a kombi!” Trying very hard to remain calm, I continued, “who do you think is going to pick up your garbage? Why can’t you wait until you get to your destination to throw the garbage in the bin rather than litter the streets of Harare?” They picked up their garbage, got back in the car and one of them remarked, “one never stops learning…”

When one gets into a space where one cannot leave, for a period of time everyday, you become a “captive” of that space for that period of time.

Getting into a kombi for a short or long period of time everyday, for five or more days a week is no different. You see activity, you observe behaviour, you listen to conversation or music and consciously or unconsciously you acquire certain ethos that shape your mental mode.

The moment you jump into a kombi, you are at the mercy of the kombi driver. It is his way or the highway. First, he decides when the vehicle is going to be full, regardless of the seats available. So if he chooses to pack you like sardines, that is his prerogative. He will not take any mode of payment except cash, so if you do not have cash, you cannot ride with him.

Once in there, he can play whatever music he wants, at whatever volume he likes and while the most direct route to your destination is known, that does not need to be followed.

If another kombi driver from the opposite direction signals to him the presence of police ahead, he alone has the audacity to turn around and change the direction. So you might be on a kombi driving from Epworth going to Hillside and suddenly find yourself on airport road headed via Arcadia into town where you were not going in the first place.

They drive at their own speed, do not always stay in their lanes, get into other motorists’ lanes, overtake and immediately stop to pick or drop passengers. When there is congestion on the roads, they do not wait their turn. They drive on pavements and ordinarily overtake, thereby jumping queues from the left. We know from the highway code that this is illegal.

Flexibility is one of their attractiveness as a public transport system of choice because they stop anywhere to pick up passengers or drop them off. As they exercise their “rights” on Zimbabwean roads, they thwart and disregard the rights of other motorists.

Many young people who have grown up knowing no other mode of public transport except kombis have been polluted by this kombi driver mentality. When the kombi driver is bribing a public official, they do this in full view of their “captive” passengers. This becomes the norm.

Littering of garbage from the kombis is so widespread. So what happens when one graduates to driving their own car? They litter the streets of our beautiful country as well.
Four years ago, a friend’s mother was run over

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