‘Pirate’ Taxis Blamed for a Rise in Hit-and-Runs in Zimbabwe

With few public options, unlicensed vehicles for hire now dominate the transportation industry. But in the rush for cash, justice can take a back seat.

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‘Pirate’ Taxis Blamed for a Rise in Hit-and-Runs in Zimbabwe

Linda Mujuru, GPJ Zimbabwe

Belinda Mashavire's husband died after being hit by what bystanders suspect was a pirate taxi.

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HARARE, ZIMBABWE — One evening in late July 2023, Belinda Mashavire received devastating news: her husband of five months, Joseph Foya, had been killed in a hit-and-run crash a few meters from their house. Witnesses believed it was a so-called pirate taxi, an unlicensed personal vehicle for hire.

Foya had returned home from work at around 8 p.m. but did not stay long. He decided to visit a friend before eating his supper. That was the last time Mashavire saw her husband alive. “I miss him a lot. I can’t believe he is gone. We dreamt of building our life together,” she says.

Mashavire’s late husband was involved in one of the thousands of hit-and-run crashes that were recorded on the streets of Zimbabwe in 2023. Between January and August, local authorities reported 2,545 hit-and-runs throughout the country, nearly 500 more than 2022.

Pirate taxis played a key role in the rise, say law enforcement officials and local traffic safety advocates.

Zimbabwe Republic Police spokesperson Paul Nyathi says speeding is one of the main causes of these accidents, and pirate taxis — locally known as mshika shika — are particularly notorious for this.

“They will be running away from the police because they know they are illegal,” Nyathi says. “Plus, they have a daily cash target to cash in, so they will be rushing to pick up passengers quickly so that they meet the cash target.”

Since September 2023, 13,886 people have been arrested nationwide for operating pirate taxis.

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Linda Mujuru, GPJ Zimbabwe

A man leans out of an illegal taxicab to call for passengers.

“They hit passengers and do not stop,” says Tafadzwa Goliati, president of the Passengers Association of Zimbabwe, an organization promoting passenger safety in the country.

Goliati says that while illegal taxis are dangerous, they’re often the only available option to get around. “We don’t have rights as passengers,” he says. “People in urban areas are left with no choice except to board private transportation.”

Unregistered taxis have been part of Zimbabwe’s transportation system for years, but they have increased since the coronavirus pandemic as other legal means of transport fell away, according to the Ministry of Transport and Infrastructural Development.

In 2020, to enforce lockdown measures and discourage people from leaving their homes, the government outlawed the country’s most dependable means of transport: licensed and privately owned omnibuses, minivan taxis — locally known as kombis — and smaller cabs. Only public buses, which are few and unreliable, were allowed to operate.

The ban was lifted in December 2022 but several private operators that had disposed of their vehicles struggled to get back into business. As a result, pirate taxis still dominate the public transportation sector, says Theodius Kudzanayi Chinyanga, the ministry’s secretary for transport and infrastructure development.

“Despite various public awareness campaigns to educate passengers on the dangers of using illegal taxis, illegal taxis continue to thrive,” Chinyanga says.

Percy Toriro, an urban planner, says the main problem affecting public transport in Zimbabwe is the lack of an efficient, integrated mass transport system.

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Linda Mujuru, GPJ Zimbabwe

Fortunate Nyadzayo’s husband was hit by a pirate taxi on his way home from work. He later died in the hospital.

“The solution is to have railway transport as well as large buses for most routes,” Toriro says. “This takes a lot of planning, engagement and management.”

The demographic and geographical growth of Zimbabwean cities has put pressure on public transportation services, according to research from the Harare-based nonprofit Zimbabwe Coalition on Debt and Development.

Zimbabwe’s population has increased by 16.2% and now stands at 15.1 million people, up from the 13 million in the 2012 census.

“When there is population growth, our cities then also expand,” says Innocent Chirisa, an urban planning expert. “You see new suburbs being opened, and when that happens you have to create new roads and transport systems.”

While the lack of reliable public transport has created new opportunities for an informal market, Goliati believes the influx of pirate taxis also stems from the country’s economic hardships.

The Zimbabwean dollar lost approximately 300% of its value in May 2023 because of a sharp decline in value relative to the United States dollar. At the same time, monthly inflation increased from 2.4% in April to 15.7%, the highest since July 2022.

“There is general poverty in this country and people are not earning much to survive, so they find alternatives to make ends meet — and pirate taxis is one of those means,” Goliati says.

Fortunate Nyadzayo, a mother of three boys all under age 8, lost her husband in November 2022 in a hit-and-run involving a pirate taxi.

Her husband worked as a mechanic in Mbare, a high-density suburb in Harare. “He had promised to come back home early — he was bringing the relish for dinner that night — but he never came back home,” she says.

“There is general poverty in this country and people are not earning much to survive, so they find alternatives to make ends meet — and pirate taxis is one of those means.” President of the Passengers Association of Zimbabwe

The vehicle that struck Nyadzayo’s husband was driving against oncoming traffic. “I was devastated; I did not know what to do,” Nyadzayo says. “I was three months pregnant at the time. What was I going to do with the children?”

The driver was caught after fleeing the scene, but Nyadzayo says justice has not been served.

“The case was taken to court but till today there is no judgement, and the culprit is walking around free. I always see him driving other pirate taxis. The courts haven’t been of help for us to get justice,” she says.

Zimbabwean law makes it difficult to prove intent when it comes to traffic-related crimes, says Elias Mapendere, a lawyer based in Harare. Other factors also make the country “major breeding grounds for hit-and-run accidents,” he adds, including a lack of tracking devices, such as a street-camera system, and the fact that people are not required to change the name on the vehicle registration after buying a car.

More can be done, Chinyanga agrees. “Strong enforcement of traffic laws and the provision of a safe, reliable and affordable public transport system is the most feasible solution to reduce the proliferation of illegal taxis,” he says.

Mashavire hopes that one day, the person who killed her husband will be captured.

“It would have been better if this person had showed remorse for what he did,” she says. “Just running over a person and not stopping is purely heartless.”

Linda Mujuru is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Harare, Zimbabwe.