Zimbabwe’s Drivers Risk Safety to Opt out of Costly Driver’s Licenses

Zimbabwe's economic crisis and high unemployment have made driving taxis a lucrative career option, but many drivers have opted to forgo a driver's license. They argue that corruption makes the official process more expensive than going without, but the country's high rate of traffic accidents makes the real cost nearly impossible to estimate.

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Zimbabwe’s Drivers Risk Safety to Opt out of Costly Driver’s Licenses

Evidence Chenjerai, GPJ Zimbabwe

Unlicensed drivers are common in Mutare's central business district. They typically drive vehicles without registration plates, or pirate taxis, called "mshika-shikas," but recent police crackdowns in Zimbabwe's fourth-largest city have forced many of them off the roads.

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MUTARE, ZIMBABWE — It is 4:30 p.m., and Mutare, Zimbabwe’s fourth-largest city, is crowded with students leaving school and with workers leaving their offices. They flock to empty taxis lining the streets, prepared to haggle over fares before climbing in.

Tawanda, who requested that just his first name be used for fear of arrest, is no stranger to haggling.

He has been a taxi driver for four years, but what most of his customers don’t know is that he is an unlicensed driver.

As he picks up customers and speeds off, he hopes that there won’t be much traffic – or any police – on the way to the riders’ destination.

By law, Tawanda is not permitted to drive, because he does not have a driver’s license. Driving without one can result in a $20 fine. But he says it’s a risk he is willing to take, because the process of obtaining the required documentation is tedious and at times corrupt.

“My boss expects me to give him $25 to $30 each day,” Tawanda says, referring to the owner of the vehicle that he drives. If Tawanda makes more than that, he gets to keep the profit.

Pirate taxis, called “mshika-shikas” in Shona, the language spoken by Zimbabwe’s majority group, are previously owned, imported vehicles, sometimes driven by people who do not have driver’s licenses. It’s also common for these vehicles to be unregistered and uninsured. Officials say the growing number of unlicensed drivers is worrisome. But the drivers disagree, saying that the licensing process is laden with flaws that prevent them from obtaining the required documentation.

In 2016, 12,054 unlicensed drivers were arrested by traffic police stationed at roadblocks in various cities, according to the Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency. The following year, a total of 3,465 unlicensed drivers were arrested in the first quarter, compared to 2,524 drivers in the first quarter of 2016.

Though road accidents decreased between the last quarter of 2016 and the first quarter of 2017, officials say the number of accidents is still high. By March 2017, nearly 11,450 accidents were recorded across the country.

In the first quarter of 2017, 3,465 unlicensed drivers were arrested in Zimbabwe.

Globally, more than 1.25 million people die in car crashes every year, according to the World Health Organization. In Zimbabwe, five people die and 38 are injured every day in road accidents, according to the Traffic Safety Council of Zimbabwe (TSCZ).

The TSCZ hosted an event in July last year to discuss the development of a road-accident fund. During the gathering, Joram Gumbo, minister of transport and infrastructural development, noted that unlicensed drivers play a major role in road accidents because they have not received formalized driving lessons and road-safety training.

Some unlicensed drivers deliberately use vehicles without registration number plates, Gumbo claimed. This makes it easy for them to evade police at roadblocks, because police cannot track them down without registration information.

Unlicensed taxi drivers often resort to the risky job because they cannot find employment elsewhere. They say this is one of the most convenient ways to make an income in the country’s crippled economy.

Unemployment is an ongoing challenge in Zimbabwe. The unemployment rate has been estimated to be as low as 9.3 percent, according to the Heritage Foundation’s 2017 Index of Economic Freedom, and as high as 95 percent, according to Africa Check, an independent fact-checking organization.

Abraham Tumbare, who was an unlicensed driver for two years, says obtaining a license in Zimbabwe is very difficult, which is why some people decide to drive without one.

To receive a license, drivers must first complete a written test, which costs $20, on rules of the road. If they pass, they then receive lessons at a registered driving school. After that, drivers seeking a license must pass a driving test administered by the Vehicle Inspectorate Department (VID), priced at $20 – the same amount as the fine for driving without a license. But Tumbare says some people spend more than seven times the indicated price.

“It was not easy for me to get a license,” he says. “The driving instructor tells you point-blank that you need to have $150 on the side to give the Vehicle Inspection Department [sic] instructors for you to get a license, no matter how perfect you drive.”

You just give an officer manning a roadblock a few dollars, and they let you go.

Sydney, another unlicensed driver who requested that only his first name be used for fear of arrest, says some unlicensed drivers can drive for years without getting caught, because the drivers pay bribes to the police.

“You just give an officer manning a roadblock a few dollars, and they let you go,” says Sydney, who admits to paying bribes before.

While the VID did not respond to allegations of corruption, Gumbo says both drivers and officials are required to follow the law, but some find a way not to.

Drivers say they hope corruption will become less common among officials. In his state of the nation address in December, interim President Emmerson Mnangagwa condemned the practice and promised to investigate allegations of corruption within various government agencies.

Evidence Chenjerai, GPJ, translated some interviews from Shona.