During the National Development Plan 8 (NDP 8) preparations, in particular at the National District Development Conference in 1996, commenting on the then Ministry of Works, Transport and Communications sectoral plans I suggested that the government should consider the possibility of outlawing or scrapping off sixteen-seater public transport minibuses commonly known as combis, in favour of twenty-five or high occupancy buses in order to reduce traffic congestion especially in Gaborone.
I reasoned that the decision would, in addition to reducing traffic congestion, ensure a reasonable level of safety for commuters because, unlike the minibuses, big buses would not have the luxury of crisscrossing lanes at will in a manner that compromises the safety of commuters and other motorists.
It is a fact that most of these minibuses are not roadworthy and are mostly driven by people with little respect for traffic laws. The drivers and their sidekicks, those we call conductors, are known for verbally and sometimes physically abusing and assaulting passengers.
But before I could round my comment, the Ministry’s overzealous officials sprang up and remarked that the idea was being considered and that the ministry’s intention was to incorporate it into the NDP 8 plan period for implementation.
My suggestion was substantially inspired by my experience with the efficiency of the UK’s public transport system.
It is almost ten years since the Ministry made the promise and it seems the ministry has done nothing to make good on its pledge perhaps because of lack of political will or simply because the idea has been lost in the bureaucratic gridlock.
In the mean time the taxi industry in Botswana, like in most parts of Africa, has eluded state regulation and is now run by mafia-style alliances. Anyone who has been to Kenya, for instance, would be familiar with the matatus.
These matatus largely involve informal minibuses, which are notorious for over-loading, over-charging, over-speeding, un-roadworthiness and unfettered disobedience of traffic regulations.
In an attempt to regulate them, the Kenyan government enacted a new law in 2004 that specifically sought to introduce stringent specifications for the transportation sector.
The matatus drivers and owners objected to this move and, in protest, caused traffic to come to a standstill with a view to forcing the government to renege on its decision. Precisely, the matatus argued that the government should not interfere with their operations, however filthy, unlawful and scandalous.
In South Africa, as recently as October this year, the government started to implement the Taxi Recapitalization Programme whose objective is to replace the current ageing and un-roadworthy fleet with new high occupancy vehicles, which are safe and reliable. The decision was also intended to ensure formalization and effective regulation of the taxi industry.
The South African government proposed a once-off scrapping allowance for each registered minibus that had to be scrapped off. As usual, the taxi drivers and owners would take nothing of this.
In the ensuing protests, chaos erupted and precious lives were lost. The Citizen (November 1, 2006) stated that despite running amok, assaulting commuters and blockading roads during their protest strike, taxi drivers who were arrested and found in possession of unlicensed firearms were nonetheless let off the hook.
I was not perturbed that the culprits were not charged because these taxi/combi drivers or owners have a way of escaping the wrath of the law enforcement personnel and they often brag about it.
The above case studies suggest that early introduction of specifications and effective regulation of the taxi industry is imperative before the drivers and owners start dictating terms and allocating routes to themselves.
Effective regulation ensures that the industry is not controlled by mafia-style cartels. The situation in Botswana has not yet reached a point of no return.
There is still time to ensure order before the industry is entangled in the criminal underworld. One viable option for the government would be to revisit the 1996 proposal and pursue it with aggression, which is, of course, better than to let the situation explode and then attempt to respond with brutal repression.
My fears and subsequent call for the government to urgently address this issue are corroborated by horror stories of combi drivers threatening to beat passengers who dare ask for their change or who ask to be dropped off at designated places. Most local combis occupy every little open space around the city and designate such as their sole parking area. These are early warning signs of difficult times ahead.
In some parts of the world, taxi and kombi drivers are being murdered with monotonous regularity and the accused always claim to have been provoked by the behaviour of the drivers.
In many cases, commuters gang up against drivers by refusing to pay fares and when the driver attempts to get payment the evader gets violent and calls for reinforcement from the gang members. In some instances, the drivers are robbed of all their day’s collections by commuters who then claim that the driver was refusing to give them their change.
I believe these are the last things we would like to come to grips with in Botswana.
The authorities must use the South African and Kenyan cases both as challenges and stimulus for timely action.
As the combis increase in number and dominate the public transport sector, their internationally acclaimed unsavory reputation will become institutionalized and it will be difficult or even impossible to attempt to instill order at some later stage. Ever wondered why the taxi or kombi drivers behave distinctively from high occupancy vehicle drivers?
I guess there is a very striking relationship between the state of a vehicle and the driver’s etiquette.
I hope the Ministry officials will not claim to have not been forewarned.
Yet, ever mindful of the government’s unwillingness to listen to distant voices in preference to listening to themselves and, at times, to pretentious consultants and fortune-tellers from Zambia, it is rarely surprising that Botswana always embraces inevitable and decisive transformations reluctantly and often slower than a pregnant snail.
Reading The Sunday Standard Online edition (November 5 -11, 2006) story “Magang comes in from the cold” one gets to understand what it really means to be ruled and managed by an odd mix of self-serving farming fanatics and subconscious protagonists of ‘dependent development.’
*Kenneth Dipholo is a University of Botswana Lecturer currently on study leave at Witwatersrand – Johannesburg