A Driving Force for the Rule of Law
In the southern African country of Zimbabwe, millions of people rely on mass transit to go about their daily lives, including state-owned buses and privately provided vans commonly known as kombis. But when the COVID-19 pandemic reached Zimbabwe in 2020, the government issued an order effectively halting all private transportation services, creating a monopoly for the state’s Zimbabwe United Passenger Company (ZUPCO), and leading to a dramatic drop in options for commuters throughout the country.
Zimbabweans trying to make their daily commute were forced to wait in line for hours. The anger and frustration among travelers often overflowed, leading to a drastic increase in uncivil behavior as customers rode in overcrowded vehicles and fought for their spot on ZUPCO buses. In the midst of the pandemic’s uncertainty, many of the country’s 25,000 kombi drivers struggled with joblessness and hunger, while other workers threatened to strike, protesting the government’s handling of the situation.
The ban on kombi drivers wreaked havoc in the nation’s busy capital in Harare, and in smaller cities like Mutare in Manicaland province, where Atlas Network partners at The Eastern Caucus (TECa) are based.
“When transport systems are deficient in terms of capacity or reliability, they can have an economic cost, such as reduced or missed opportunities and lower quality of life,” said TECa Executive Director Sihle Lindsay Mhlanga. “The cost of unreliable transport systems is heavier for informal traders as they often survive on their daily margins. Therefore, there is a direct and positive relationship between dignity, happiness, and mobility.”
TECa, which traditionally focuses on policy in Zimbabwe’s eastern provinces, saw firsthand how the transportation monopoly was causing harm to individuals and communities in the region, and worked with a coalition of partners to push for reform.
“Even though we are based in Zimbabwe’s fourth city of Mutare, we are making an impact as a think tank, affecting national policy. Zimbabwe’s constitution speaks of devolving governance to the provinces. That means policymaking is no longer the privilege of those based in the capital city Harare,” said Nyasha Musikambasa, chair of TECa’s board of directors.
With TECa’s support, a local pro-bono law firm called Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights filed a lawsuit against the government’s order. In October 2022, a court ruled that the ZUPCO transit monopoly was illegal. But this was not the end of TECa’s story.
Even with a favorable court ruling in hand—and a commitment in late 2022 from the Ministry of Transport to reopen the marketplace—kombi drivers in Zimbabwe have no guarantee that their economic freedoms will be respected in the future, leaving private operators in a legal gray zone that places them at risk of harassment if they do restart their businesses.
Working to unite the voices of commuter groups and private transportation operators, TECa is engaged in conversations with the Ministry of Transport to draft a blueprint for legislation that would create a truly open transportation sector. This would mean reestablishing a legal structure for private operators, minimizing the barriers to entry into the marketplace, and formally ending the government’s monopoly.
TECa notes the support and training they have received as an Atlas Network partner equipped their team with the tools to achieve this policy success. "Our global networks and access to contemporary think tank marketing and organizing techniques from Atlas Network gives us an intellectual advantage to focus on what gives higher returns in terms of policy impact," said Nyasha Musikambasa.
“The rule of law is of paramount importance in Zimbabwe because our current constitution states that public officers owe a duty to everyone in Zimbabwe to observe and uphold the rule of law,” said Donald Marevanhema, TECA community relations manager. “In effect, the coming back of private transport systems in Zimbabwe evidences the importance of rule of law in Zimbabwe. In spite of the disparity between political interest and the legal provisions, in this case, the law prevailed.”