“Bagaetsho, I want to encourage all of you to use public transport and make use of the car pooling method, whenever possible, and to walk or cycle,” said President Mokgweetsi Masisi in his most recent national address when addressing himself to the current fuel shortages.
However, carpooling is in direct conflict with an unlawful practice that the Botswana Police Service have normalised and engage in across the country with impunity. Last Tuesday, a Molepolole man was charged for “using a private vehicle as PSV w/o appropriate permit” by the Thamaga police who slapped him with a P1500 fine and impounded his car. “PSV” means “public service vehicle” and “w/o” means “without.” His contention is that the people in his car were his neighbours, that they were not paying passengers and that they were merely carpooling. In the case of Gaborone, it is likely that other motorists carpooling from peri-urban places like Thamaga, Ramotswa and Mochudi have suffered similar fate.
However, even if these motorists are not carpooling and as even senior police officers confirm, there is no law against giving people a lift in one’s car. That notwithstanding, and for more decades, traffic police have misinterpreted Section 5 of the Road Transport Permit Act which penalises using a private vehicle as a public service vehicle without appropriate permit. It is common knowledge that virtually all motorists who give passengers a lift ask them to pay at the end of their journey. However, the police are helpless in this case because they actually need to see money changing hands for them to say that the law has been broken. However, lack of evidence has never stopped the police from charging motorists, ordering occupants from a private car and in some cases, impounding it. Unless there is proof that they are going to pay or have paid, it is unlawful to do the latter. While this is a loophole in the law, it is one that the police can’t close by doing what the law doesn’t prescribe.
Bus owners, who have no compunction about breaking the law, also misinterpret Section 5 of the Road Transport Permit Act to basically unleash violence against members of the public. This they do by engaging the services of literally battle-scarred young men and deploying them along the routes their buses take. The duty of these part-time employees is to prevent hitchhikers from boarding lifts. It is unclear what their instructions are but some get physical in the process of discharging such duty. However, they have neither the power nor authority to do that and like the police, can’t actually prove that money has changed hands.
Continued misinterpretation of Section 5 of the Road Transport Permit Act will certainly make it impossible for motorists to carpool – meaning that President Masisi should have asked for the permission of traffic police officers who have established practice that puts carpooling on the wrong side of this Act.
The most egregious example of this law-breaking by the police happened last year when two young men almost died when two Seabelo Express buses collided along the A1 Highway in a freak fatal accident in the Tropic of Capricorn area. The men, Mosimane Chakalisa and Buzwani Kwelagano, boarded a Francistown-bound private car in Gaborone at the Tawana hitchhiking spot on a rainy day. At Dibete, the officer manning a roadblock learnt that the driver had given Chakalisa and Kwelagano a ride and ordered them out of the car with the explanation that “hitchhiking is against the law.” The reality though – which some police officers themselves confirm – is that hitchhiking is not against the law; paying for a ride is but even then police need proof that money changed hands.