Commuter omnibus operators who have for long been the de facto transportation providers within Zimbabwe’s towns and cities are in dire straits. When the lockdown measures were eased and people employed in some industries were allowed to go back to work, ZUPCO was declared the only transporter allowed to ferry those passengers. As if that was not enough the industry has been told that it is unlikely that kombis will ever be allowed back on the roads ever again. Some desperate kombi operators have reportedly responded to this threat on their only means of livelihood through trademark infringement—they have resorted to using fake versions of the stickers that ZUPCO buses and kombis use to identify themselves.

This means that there is currently quite a number of private kombis on the road which are masquerading as ZUPCO authorised vehicles. However the emulation ends there, these kombis still charge higher fees and do not abide by any of the anti-COVID-19 procedures that ZUPCO has to follow.

The ZUPCO stickers were never meant to be especially secure markings. They were originally only intended to identify the far much cheaper buses (and kombis) which had joined the “franchise”. They were also probably used to get around the need to paint the new few buses which were bought for the company. Private passenger-carrying vehicles never needed to operate under the guise of ZUPCO franchisees. However, this has all changed since ZUPCO is now the only company allowed to ply routes and the company’s logo has become considerably more valuable.

How hard is it to obtain these stickers?

The cheapest set of these stickers costs around 15 USD. As mentioned earlier there is nothing special or sophisticated about these, which makes them easy to replicate. Since most of the police who are supposed to prevent private transport operators from carrying passengers are not yet on the lookout for anything suspicious, these kombis have been operating right under their noses and everyone assumes they are part of the ZUPCO fleet.

Do passengers care?

It is unlikely that passengers care as long as they get to their destinations promptly.  At the moment the biggest rationale for using ZUPCO transportation is its compliance with the measures meant to prevent the spread of COVID-19. However as local cases of the disease appear to have grown at a rate which is far less than that previously feared and seen in other countries, people have grown complacent not to mention almost everyone is now wearing face masks which have significantly contributed to a sense of security which some experts warn is ill-advised.

A symptom of ZUPCO’s numerous shortcomings

ZUPCO fares are two dollars (of the local currency) for the buses and four for the kombis. These amounts are equal to around 5 and 10 United States cents respectively—using the parallel exchange rate. To put it mildly, commuters have been getting their money’s worth. ZUPCO has continuously struggled to offer efficient and timely services even when it was operating alongside the multitude of its independently owned counterparts. ZUPCO vehicles are sometimes late often leaving scores of passengers stranded with no warning. Their operations have not improved by much even though the overall number of commuters has decreased significantly due to the stricter rules on movement. This is mostly because of the fumigation and social distancing rules that their vehicles have to comply with.

Zimbabweans still prefer kombis if they can afford them

The argument against the continued existence of kombi transportation in the country is that their crews together with the multitudes of touts that they attract are uncouth and often rude to passengers. This together with the general chaos that marks their operations as they completely disregard several traffic regulations are good enough reason for people who have never experienced the government’s arguably worse alternative to want them off the roads for good. Indeed this fake sticker saga demonstrates the willingness of some of these people to flagrantly disregard the law.

However, while the operations of kombis are/were indeed often marked by chaos, the existence of queues was often rare with the vehicles queuing up and competing for customers instead of the other way round. Commuters are often very happy to part with additional money for the convenience of a kombi. This is because in many cases ZUPCO is proving to be the worse alternative. It is unlikely that buses will ever match the popularity of kombis however ZUPCO prefers the former and it is unlikely that there will ever be enough kombis under the franchise to satisfy commuters. This means that those fake ZUPCO kombis will enjoy brisk business while the bigwigs are trying to come up with what are supposed to be security features for their stickers.

In conclusion

The fact that there is even something called a ZUPCO franchise is a stark admission of an obvious fact by the parastatal and the government—they have neither the vehicles nor the resources to ferry the country’s commuters all on their own so they instead opted to co-opt the massive private transportation fleet, built entirely out of private funds, into their own under the guise of a franchise agreement.

Along with vendors, kombi crews are among a group of “problematic” groups of informally employed individuals whose presence and operations in cities is often considered to be disruptive by the authorities. It is therefore unsurprising that the government and local authorities are openly trying to permanently get rid of them through some measures which are supposedly meant to contain the COVID-19 outbreak.