An alternative interpretation of Harare Christmas police traffic crackdown

Dec 27, 2011

Police caused a lot of commotion in downtown Harare in the days just before Christmas 2011 with their clampdown on the city’s public transit mini-bus drivers. Ostensibly designed to bring order out of the downtown traffic mess, the police action caused even more chaos than the usually undisciplined, disruptive drivers usually do. In the great inconvenience caused to members of the public, many people asked why the police had to choose the busiest time of the year to carry out the crackdown. Could causing maximum commotion, confusion and public misery be part of the very reason for the timing of the action, rather than merely the unfortunate and unintended results?

The number of cars in city center Harare has risen faster than the capacity of the road infrastructure and traffic control mechanisms to cope. Cheap second hand Japanese car imports have made it possible for many more people to be car owners. The ‘lost decade’ of economic crisis and decline that ended recently meant that road and maintenance traffic light maintenance was severely neglected. There are many more people and cars straining a declined infrastructure.  

Among the results of this is now horrendous traffic congestion in Harare’s city center. Morning and evening rush hours are now much longer and more chaotic than has ever been the case in the once relatively easy-going city.

Amongst the most aggressive in finding any way to get out of or shorten long commutes are the city’s mini bus drivers. Ferrying tens of thousands of people into and out of the city center from surrounding suburbs every day, they are a critically important part of the city’s mass transit system. These drivers of these privately owned minibuses are under considerable time and money pressures to maximize the number of trips they do each day. Traffic jams slow them down, and they have now gained a reputation for being the most ruthless of drivers in breaking traffic laws to achieve their daily targets.

Going the wrong way on one way streets or past red traffic robots are just a couple of the gambits these minibus drivers have gained infamy for. They often get their passengers to their destinations faster than would be possible if they obeyed traffic laws, but in the process they arguably worsen the traffic mess. They certainly are a danger to themselves and other drivers, and are often the cause of traffic accidents.

Harare’s traffic problems have long grown beyond being merely a policing issue. The police can’t do anything about the contribution that poor, un-maintained roads or non-functioning traffic lights make to traffic congestion. At best they can try to deal with some of the symptoms of the blockages.

The minibus drivers and the police usually co-exist, often aided by the exchange of ‘gifts’ from the former to the latter. But there are occasional periods when the police conduct ‘crackdowns’ on the drivers such as that conducted in the days leading up to Christmas 2011. For a brief while the police are on heightened, low-tolerance alert against traffic violations by the minibus drivers.

During these periods, arrest of the offending drivers and impounding of their vehicles are amongst the usually ignored tactics the police use to ostensibly ‘to tame the traffic jungle,’ to use a Zimnglish expression commonly used by the media. Many other drivers avoid the ‘danger’ by staying out of the downtown area of heightened police operations.    

The number of minibuses on the city center roads declines. This brings relative traffic calm to the downtown area during these periods, but causes a cascade of other problems. The fares of the minibuses willing to brave the police crackdown often dramatically increases. Passengers have longer distances to walk to board or disembark from the minibuses as the drivers avoid the center of the city. This is of particular inconvenience during the busy Christmas shopping period, when passengers may often travel as families and be carrying heavier than normal loads.

Therefore, a police crackdown that might be welcomed by the public at other times of the year at Christmas causes more other problems than the traffic problems it solves. Much of the public focuses more attention on the great inconveniences the police cause than on the fact that city center traffic is quieter and more orderly.

This inconvenience to Christmas shoppers is what informed most of the media coverage of the police action.

Newsday columnist Conway Tutani summarized the sentiment of much of the minibus-dependent public in an article headed, ‘Police blitz ill-advised, ill-timed.’ Wrote Tutani, The result was that thousands of people trudged into and out of town under a hot, blazing sun as omnibus crews played hide-and-seek with the police with passengers being dropped and picked out of town as the crews sought to evade the cops. Not only that, fares were quickly doubled as fewer and fewer omnibuses remained on the streets and crews took advantage of the worsening chaos.”      

Tutani asked, “Why subject people to such great inconvenience at the only time of the
year they can let go? Why turn a happy family shopping outing into a nightmare? What have ordinary, law-abiding people done to deserve this? Why wasn’t the operation activated well before the peak of the festive season? Would the police rather have people stranded in town in their determination to deal with omnibus crews? Why? Everything else must not grind to a halt just because of a police crackdown. What a time to spoil Xmas!”

Most of the rest of the media coverage was along the same vein as Tutani’s sentiments.

The generous answer to Tutani’s refrain of ‘why now?’ would be that the police were well-meaning, and that the resulting problems that ended up engendering a lot of public resentment against them were unintended consequences of their basically good traffic-control intentions.

But a more cynical interpretation is that the police knew perfectly well the great problems their timing and methods would cause the public. What about if that result was actually at least a part of the reason for the inconvenient timing and methods?

Some speculated that the exercise gave the poorly paid police an end of year ‘bonus’ by their being able to shake down the minibus drivers for higher-than-normal ‘gifts’ to avoid arrest or get their impounded vehicles released. This cannot be entirely discounted as a motivation. But is there another possible reason the police would want to deliberately cause disruption of the Harare public’s Christmas shopping experience?

This particular crackdown might have been at Christmas and particularly aimed at minibus drivers, but it is hardly the first police operation of one type or another that has caused huge disruption. ‘Operation Murambatsvina’ a few years ago is perhaps the most notorious example. In that ‘clean up’ operation, thousands of ‘illegal’ houses were destroyed with no concern to what would happen to the displaced families. Thousands of ‘illegal’ trading businesses were similarly destroyed, their goods confiscated with no recourse for the affected owners. Tens of thousands of peoples’ livelihoods were destroyed over a several weeks period, and many of the affected never recovered. There was an international outcry against a government that had already won a reputation for being cruel and unfeeling to its citizens, but this just seemed to stiffen the resolve to continue with the operation.

Official ‘enjoyment’ of such periodic disruptive operations only seems to increase in direct proportion to the outcry against the excesses and the suffering they cause. Public pleas for forbearance in the carrying out of operations that may be strictly legal but that are socially insensitive are rejected or ignored with contempt.
Perhaps this is a part of keeping that public off-balance and showing them ‘who is in control.’  Showing cruelty, being blind to the resulting public suffering and deaf to the cries for more sensitive applications of regulations may be very deliberate ways of keeping people cowed and controlled. The very authority the public should seek protection from is the one that is the source of their misery, showing that public that they really have no effective recourse in such events.

A look back at the history of policing as far back as Rhodesia and even to the early days of its successor, Zimbabwe, shows that these occasional orgies of official excess are not constant facts of life, but neither are they unheard of. They have very much characterized the ever-present levels of usually low-level but very effective repression that have been a constant of life in the country for many decades. That sense of repression and low-level menace by officialdom against the citizens, usually covered up by a misleading veneer of calm and peace, is unfortunately very much a part of the society that Zimbabwe has become over many years.

This and previous similar operations might be carried out under narrowly, legalistically justified pretensions. But that they also sometimes seem to be effected with the specific aim of causing maximum public confusion and misery may be a way of fundamentally repressive state machinery and its various implementing organs messaging the citizens that they are not as free as they might sometimes like to imagine.

In a truly democratic society a loud public outcry about the manner of the State’s exercise of power would have the institution in question retreating, apologizing to the public and seeking more sensitive means to achieve the same aims. That is almost unimaginable in Zimbabwe.

The effective official response to the outcry is basically that the governing authority is in control and has absolute impunity in how it carries out its functions. There is none of the self-regulation that might come from an authority that fears that its excesses may cost it support at the next election. That authority no longer fears the electorate or shows any signs of being responsive to it, much less subject to it.

Intentionally or otherwise, periodic official ‘crackdowns’ of various sorts that cause the kind of massive disruption and misery such as that of the recent police action in Harare speak volumes about the relationship between Zimbabwe’s ruling institutions and the citizens. It is not pretty picture that emerges.


Post a Comment