Hardly two days after ZUPCO reintroduced short distance trips, Combis are already feeling hard done by. Following the recent round of fuel price increases, combis had started charging between $2 and $5 for a single trip in Harare and Chitungwiza respectively. On a ZUPCO bus, $2 is what you pay for a trip to Norton. Chitungwiza costs $1.50 while the rest of the suburbs around Harare cost $1. Combis are crying foul. They are going to be pushed out of business.
The playfield is not level
Combis took over years ago when ZUPCO started facing serious viability challenges. To date, the combis had built some kind of monopoly. Luckily for ZUPCO, and indeed other private bus operators who have opted to tag along, the recent shutdown opened up space for them to get back onto business. With combi fares too high and violent protesters blocking roads into town, government remembered that their parastatal could rise from the dead and fill the gap. But the playing field is far from being even. ZUPCO is believed to be enjoying heavily subsidised fuel and can easily afford to charge low fares. The official price for diesel is $3.11 per litre and ZUPCO is reported to be buying it at about half the price. Greater Harare Association of Commuter Operators Secretary General Ngoni Katsvairo says, “Competition is healthy as commuters emerge the winners.” The truth is that the competition is not fair. If reports on social media are anything to go by, there could be a second force coercing combis to charge lower prices in Bulawayo. Also, some of the military personnel who are escorting ZUPCO buses are believed to be abusive and unnecessarily militant towards commuters. While the presence of military personnel is justifiable given the violent disturbances of last week, harassment of citizens should be condemned. Competition between ZUPCO buses and combis should be kept fair and healthy. Commuters should be left to decide how they want to travel.
For now, the commuter is the biggest winner. Most people’s salaries have ben eroded by inflation which topped 40% for December 2018. After the fuel price increases, those with their own vehicles opted to park them but combis became unaffordable as well. ZUPCO buses offer a very cheap way to get around. But again, this might just be for now. If people feel unsafe on the buses, ZUPCO buses may be left empty soon.
ZUPCO’s ability to charge only a $1 for a trip around Harare may backfire soon. The Central Mechanical Equipment Department (CMED) definitely cannot continue dolling out fuel at half price. They too are not doing well performance wise. More importantly, ZUPCO will not be making enough money to cater for other expenses like their debt and spares for repairs and maintenance. Their fleet will be rundown soon if they forego repairs and maintenance opting to be on the road at all costs. This has happened before. Of the 100 buses procured in 2013, only 56 are still on the road. Also, gross mismanagement which has been a characteristic of many parastatals in the country has not spared ZUPCO. This is a demon which needs to be exorcised right now if ZUPCO is to reap rewards from the current arrangement.
While competition is good in the sense that it eradicates painful monopolies, the playfield should be fair. Access to fuel needs to be on an equal footing. If government wishes to subsidise its parastatal, this must be done in a sustainable way. Also, the recently announced fuel rebate for transporters needs to be expedited as this will allow some measure of fairness. Even more critical is the coming in of an investor to partner ZUPCO under a partial privatisation deal. This may unlock funds to resuscitate the company and increase its fleet. Forget about world class ticketing systems for now. What the company urgently needs is stability and professionalism. These fundamentals will steer growth and sustainability. Eventually, as a competitor, ZUPCO may be able to give combis a run for their money. Government also needs to be careful not to throw combi operators under the bus, literally. This is an industry which they must embrace as still being relevant in the economy. The market is big enough for combis and buses.
The days to follow will define the future of combis. Some are believed to have already voluntarily chosen to lower their fares while others are said to have been forced to do so. The question is, is this going to make business sense? For now, the commuters are relieved.