Harrison Kachingwe vows he will never board a Honda Fit — or any private lift for that matter — after he was robbed and thrown out of the moving vehicle in December. He had thumbed a lift at night on his way from a city pub, and it quickly became a nightmare.
“There were four guys in the car, including the driver, and I imagined the others were passengers, but after the car had travelled a few minutes, I was strangled, beaten up and had the little money I had and my phone taken,” Kachingwe said.
According to the police, this is not an isolated incident. A police spokesperson has previously reported that up to 75% of city robberies were committed by criminals using the Honda Fit as an accessory.
An old joke in Nigeria is if a stone dropped from the sky, it would hit a university graduate, testimony to the country’s high levels of education. In present day Bulawayo’s urban traffic jungle, it may well be said that if a stone dropped from the sky, it will most likely hit a Honda Fit.
And if cars could talk, the Honda Fit would claim its place among the most used and abused. One Honda Fit — the vehicle that can cram up to six or even seven passengers with one agreeable paying commuter sitting in the boot — was stopped by police last year at a roadblock and was found to be carrying 16 stolen goats.
The ubiquity of these cars have become a symbol of mayhem, turning the city streets into a pirate’s paradise. The Honda Fit has become an unofficial alternative to registered public transport vehicles.
In a country where millions are without jobs, the pirate taxi pick-up points are now a haven of touts earning a living, while residents claim the touts work in cahoots with drivers to identify potential robbery victims.
By September last year, the police said they had arrested more than 20 000 touts across the country, the staggering number highlighting not just the country’s slide, but an industry that refuses to be tamed.
After the government outlawed privately-owned commuter omnibuses, citing Covid-19 public health concerns, the small vehicles quickly tapped into a niche, zigzagging through pot-holed streets to transport stranded, desperate commuters across Bulawayo, which has an estimated population of 653 000 but is generally believed to be much higher.
Amid such high demand, the Honda Fit now operates as a utility vehicle of sorts, and has in the process become the get-away car of choice for criminals.
Motorists claim the fuel efficiency of the Honda Fit has made it attractive — and so have the criminals.
Thousands of such vehicles clog the streets of Zimbabwe’s second city. At one point the police impounded more than 400 vehicles in just one week, most of them Honda Fits.
Despite numerous public service announcements by the Zimbabwe Republic Police warning members of the public against boarding the Honda Fit, the country’s failing public transport system has meant commuters ignore such warnings. But Kachingwe’s harrowing experience has been enough to convince him that you only ignore the police warnings at your own peril.
Women have especially been targeted for rape in the notorious vehicles. “I just wish more could be done to get these cars off our streets but I also know that it won’t happen as this has been going on for too long,” Kachingwe said.
Amid that notoriety, the Honda Fit has however become Zimbabweans’ dream car, with a scramble of sorts to import the vehicles. Online, they are advertised for anything between US$99 and US$1 000 in country of manufacture but can set you back for as much as US$5 000 locally.
Resident representatives say that crimes committed using pirate taxis point to a greater problem with the city’s public transport system.
“Most areas where Honda Fit- related crimes have been reported are those that are not fully serviced by the Zimbabwe United Passenger Company [Zupco],” said Abigail Ndlovu, gender officer at the Bulawayo Progressive Residents Association.
Zupco is a government-owned entity and the only transporter mandated to ferry commuters, but has on numerous occasions been criticised for failing to meet demand.
“Residents are forced to board the illegal Honda Fits, and there is a need to look at the underlying forces that have led to an increase in robberies as providing more Zupco buses alone may not solve the problem,” Ndlovu said.
According to the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority, between 2015 and 2020, used vehicles worth US$1.3-billion were imported, at one time prompting Finance Minister Mthuli Ncube to impose stiff customs duty, ostensibly to promote the local car manufacturing industry.
With the Honda Fit taking over Zimbabwe’s streets, it could be long before the country meets the goals of the United Nations Safe Cities initiative, as more and more Zimbabweans keep importing the small vehicles with one intention: to generate income on the cities’ pot-holed streets.