Latest News Editor's Choice

Opinion / Columnist

From the 404 to the Honda Fit

01 Sep 2019 at 14:48hrs | Views
"KIDNAP, robbery and near rape", the newspaper headline screamed on 22 August.

"Honda Fit Crew robs osiphatheleni," our sister paper The Chronicle's headline read on 27 August.

In the days between those two screaming headlines, many countless robberies and rapes were attempted. Some succeeded and some did not. While five days separated those two headlines, one thing connected them: a Honda Fit.

While they might be long and loud debate about what the most popular car in Zimbabwe is, arguments about which one is most common might be shorter and muted.

The Honda Fit is a staple on Zimbabwe's urban streets. From Mbare to Makokoba, sightings of the first generation of the Honda Fit, which first debuted in 2001 in Japan to displace the Toyota Corolla as that country's most popular car, are common enough.      

Perhaps as common as the Honda Fit itself are story of crimes committed inside them. Kidnappings, rapes and robberies have been carried out with alarming frequency inside the five-door, front-engine and front-wheel-drive B-segment supermini manufactured and marketed by Honda since the turn of the century.

In 2016, the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) announced that 75% of plain robberies were committed by Honda Fit drivers. Two months ago, ZRP in Bulawayo announced that Honda Fit related rapes and robberies were on the rise. Like most predators, criminals behind the wheel of this tiny Japanese monster have a taste for a particular kind of prey.

"We have received several cases of women who have been raped inside Honda Fit vehicles. Most of the rape cases are committed by strangers or drivers of these pirated Honda Fits in areas such as Richmond," said Assistant Inspector Auxilia Sibanda from ZRP Victim Friendly Unit.

It is now clear: when the sun sets and artificial lights take over in the streets of Bulawayo, beware the unknown Honda Fit and never become the last passenger in one.

For those born after the year 2000, a Honda Fit might be the only kind of transport that they know. After all, there are large parts of the city particularly in the western suburbs that are not serviced by commuter omnibuses (kombis).

As hard as it might be for those born after the 21st century to believe, there was a time when the Honda Fit did not exist.

The roar of the French Lion

For years after Zimbabwe won its independence, commuters in urban areas had to rely on the Peugeot 404 and perhaps to a certain extent its close cousin, the 504, as a means of public transport. While the AVM bus was king on long distance routes, kicking up dust as it roared towards the country's remote areas, the spaceship-styled 404 was the emperor on the country's urban streets.

First designed and marketed as a family car in 1960 by the French car manufacturer, the Peugeot 404 became a darling to Zimbabweans back in those early years after independence. Ironically, one could say the way those cars operated was not vastly different from the mushikashikas that have been the subject of much criticism and scorn.

"Back then they used to be called emergency taxis," a veteran city taxi driver Itai Chitiyo told Sunday Life. "They could fit as many as seven or eight people in there and the conductor would be the last one at the back. It could be precarious because he had to hold the door behind him as the car went along," he said with a laugh.

In more recent times, established taxi drivers like Chitiyo have found themselves at odds with unregistered Honda Fit drivers. Back in the heydays of the 404, he said, there was a clear distinction between metered taxis and emergency taxis.

"Only the big companies like Rixi could operate those days and taxis were far and few in between. When a taxi parked in front of your house people knew that you were someone important, someone who had money. The regulations for owning a taxi back then were harder, they were relaxed over the years in my opinion so as to open up more opportunities for people. But there was a clear distinction between metered taxis and emergency taxis," he said.

In those days, vehicles of emergency taxi operators were expected to have red number plates. However, even in those days pirate taxi operators had already become a problem.

"Emergency taxis in Bulawayo are only those with red numbers," noted Political and Business bulletin The Insider in 1991. "If one has yellow numbers he is pirating and he gets tickets galore. Police in Bulawayo do not hesitate to enforce the law - not that they should not - but simply that the law should have a human face to it. In Harare on the other hand, it is very rare to see an emergency taxi with red numbers. It appears anyone with a car is entitled to operate an emergency taxi."

Deregulation and the coming of the kombi

The 404 began to lose its lustre after Zimbabwe deregulated its transport sector in 1992. The kombi, already popular in neighbouring South Africa, began its dominance on the country's urban terrain.

Perhaps the coming of the kombi gave urban commuters a foretaste of the chaos that the Honda Fit and its operators would later bring. In the late 1990s, commuter omnibus conductors (owindi) became a phenomenon in their own right due to what at the time was regarded as the indignity of their profession.

Jokes about these men who swung doors open and shut for a living were common, but so too were reports of their lewd and sometimes violent behaviour. Before Honda Fit drivers earned a reputation for their risky driving, kombi drivers had already made an impression with their reckless navigation through the urban traffic maze.

For metered taxi drivers however, the early to late 1990s provided a lot of rich pickings. The men who drove Datsun 121s and Renault 8s for companies such as Ritz made a comfortable living on the streets of Bulawayo despite the coming of the kombi. Their knowledge of city streets made them an invaluable asset.   

"You'll find taxi drivers taking directions from the people that they're driving around," said Chitiyo.

"In truth a taxi is supposed to be for visitors, people that are new in a city. How is a person who has never been in Bulawayo going to tell you where they want to go? In the old days someone would just get into the taxi and tell you where they're going and start reading their newspaper with the confidence that you'll be taking them wherever they wanted to go."

Dollarisation and the rise of the Honda Fit

For Chitiyo, the taxi driver changed in the years between 2008 and 2009. This is the period he saw the taxi industry lose its exclusivity. This was mainly due to the mass importation of second hand cars.

Last year it was revealed that $4,5 billion had been used since dollarisation to import mainly second-hand vehicles from Japan. The ex-Jap cars, as they are popularly known, have had a massive impact on the country's foreign currency reserves, with demand for imported car parts and fuel emptying the country's central bank coffers by the day.

"The problems associated with that are for all to see as roads are congested and overused, there is a battle for parking space, there is a huge demand for fuel as many engines are running at any given time," town planning expert Percy Toriro told our sister publication The Herald last year.  

On the street, the Honda Fit has acquired the kind of infamy that its Japanese makers would not have imagined when it debuted in 2001.

Crime, reckless driving, cat and mouse games with ZRP and council police have all become part of the daily theatre that the Honda Fit brings on the country's streets. With government's stated wish to revive the country's public transport system, the Honda Fit may, like the Peugeot 404 in 1992, meet its demise at the stroke of a pen.

In the meantime, the metered taxi drivers that once used to rule Bulawayo have to make peace with the fact they have to share the streets of the City of Kings with these daredevil, cavalier users of the road.

"Back then a taxi driver, like a teacher, was a prestigious profession. One couldn't just wake up and become a taxi driver. Someone who was a taxi driver was someone who knew the streets of Bulawayo like the back of his hand.

"The City Council was also still very strict on how it awarded Taxi Badges and if you had one you would be someone who they were confident could find any street in Bulawayo even in their sleep. Now it's not the same," he said.  

Source - sundaynews
All articles and letters published on Bulawayo24 have been independently written by members of Bulawayo24's community. The views of users published on Bulawayo24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Bulawayo24. Bulawayo24 editors also reserve the right to edit or delete any and all comments received.