Matatu reform requires more than just strikes and crackdowns to work

Friday June 21 2013


Matatu industry operatives have been muttering darkly how they intend to strike soon, ostensibly to teach traffic police a lesson. This strike thing they have been doing at least once a year for a decade, generally flexing their muscle.

The only problem is that it is not the police who are taught a lesson; it is mostly the daily commuter who has no other means of getting around.

I am no matatu junkie, but due to circumstances, I have been forced to use them for the past five years, and so I know what I’m talking about. I wish those in authority did it once in a while, so that they, too, would enjoy the uplifting experience. They would quickly find ways to sort out the transport nightmare that has blighted the lives of millions for decades.

But even they, in their juggernauts and SUVs, do occasionally get an inkling of the suffering, for when matatus are on strike, they, too, can hardly move. This is because every ramshackle contraption is then dusted up, oiled, fuelled and coaxed back onto the road, causing humongous gridlocks which never let up until late into the night.

The main reason why matatu operators strike is because, they say, police continuously harass them in pursuit of bribes even for minor offences. What they never say is why they commit those offences in the first place, or why they should not be penalised.

But what annoys matatu operators most, and on that I agree with them, are the sporadic crackdowns that are supposed to net all the derelicts and exact heavy penalties on the transgressors.

When you think about it, these “operations” are somewhat puzzling. Why should police wake up one morning, wait until 9am when office-workers have left to town, and then viciously crack down on every passenger service vehicle within sight?

Why do they suddenly decide to check whether PSVs have bald tyres, working brakes, valid insurance stickers, seat belts, speed governors and a myriad other things, all at once? One would have thought that checking on these things would be a continuous exercise – the job that traffic police are supposed to do always. What tasks do they perform when they are on the road the rest of the time?

Almost everything has been said about the iniquities of the matatu industry in the past few decades. It has been agreed that the industry is a formidable socio-political and economic force that can never be ignored or wished away.

A minister came and, against all odds, almost succeeded in taming the behemoth. A more recent one came up with draconian penalties that he mistakenly believed would reform the industry. It could not work because it was more punitive than thoughtful.

Let’s get it straight. There is absolutely no chance of reforming the matatu industry. Neither the corrupt police, nor drastic rules or unrealistic penalties will ever work in a situation where there are no alternatives. Only a very comprehensive, mass transit programme will ever make a difference.

A passenger train network may help in the long run, but that will involve a mind-boggling infrastructure rearrangement which is, at the moment, beyond our means. Cable cars above our heads and tunnels below our feet may one day become commonplace, but again, at the moment, we can’t afford them.

But something has to be done. A monster that can blackmail a government is a great danger to the country. It is a malignancy that can neither be cured nor ignored; it has to be cut off permanently.

In the meantime, I’ll continue enduring my matatu rides because I have no choice in the matter. I have even got used to the ear-splitting, meaningless noise that goes for music in these torture chambers. As a matter of fact, my favourite DJ these days is a chap known as Kalonje. He really makes my day – and night – in the worst possible way.