Citizens Patch Up Zimbabwe – And Elicit A Giggle In Tough Times

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Daily Maverick

THROUGHOUT Zimbabwe’s capital city, Harare, road intersections have stories to tell. Catching the attention of motorists, a young man with a love of fashion wears intriguing hats and outfits while he directs traffic at one intersection.

At another, a uniformed policeman performs eye-catching moves doing the same, all to give a therapeutic giggle to motorists and pedestrians alike.

Further down the road from the busy intersections, young unemployed people are taking the initiative to make temporary repairs to a dilapidated road by filling the many potholes with gravel, projecting an uncoerced sense of responsibility by ordinary citizens.

The civilian traffic controller

After moving from Makokoba to Harare, Thuso Nyathi (19) started working as a gardener before becoming homeless after his employment was terminated. With nowhere to go, he made a makeshift plastic shack for himself close to the intersection of Argyle Road and Prince Edward Street, resorting to begging to survive. It wasn’t long before he discovered his ability to unlock a traffic jam at the busy junction.

Speaking to DM168, Nyathi said: “I used to beg for food when I first arrived at this intersection in 2020, but now I have learned not to beg anymore. Motorists are happy with what I do and they voluntarily give as a token of appreciation.”

Clad in orange plastic sunglasses, a beige cap with a blue toy elephant that jiggles when he moves, as if it were directing the traffic itself, Nyathi lowers his face mask to blow the whistle and, with gestures, directs vehicles. Motorists obey and the traffic flows, a testament to his traffic-controlling skills.

Armed only with Grade 3, the tactful teenager has mastered regulating traffic by observing how the traffic light works.

A well-wisher bought Nyathi a bicycle, which he rides each day to his new-found job from the Epworth slum, 20km from the capital, where he now rents a single room sustained by money and free gifts that he receives mainly from motorists. Nyathi also sells brooms, mops and plastic rakes bought using tips received from motorists.

The resourceful youth started controlling traffic during Zimbabwe’s first lockdown, when long hours of electricity power cuts rendered traffic lights useless. Many intersections in Harare become jammed for hours until traffic police came to assist or socially innovative people such as Nyathi came to the rescue.

The cop who gets the laughs

At a bigger intersection leading from the capital city’s main roads, a policeman captivates motorists as he directs traffic at the junction of Samora Machel Avenue and Chief Rekayi Tangwena Road.

Interchanging robotic gestures and dance moves with hand signals to direct traffic, Constable Brian Tembo of the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) Harare traffic section leaves everyone in awe or taking videos to share and post on social media.

Tembo almost mimics the late American pop star, Michael Jackson. Some have nicknamed him “RoboCop” and others simply call him the “Star Officer”, giving credit to his moves, which bring sanity to the peak hour hustle and bustle.

Over the years, Zimbabwean police have earned a rather disdainful reputation for “heavy-handedness” when maintaining law and order. Protests by citizens have sometimes turned violent, prompting a harsh response, which many have characterised as brutal. The now-famous traffic cop seems to be providing a refreshing perspective.

The ZRP posted on its Facebook page, applauding Tembo’s traffic controlling skills that were punctuated with “energy, enthusiasm and pride, to ease and aid the flow of traffic for motorists rushing to their daily stations and routines”.

Unemployed youth fix potholes

A broken-down Mazda bakkie is parked along Pomona Road, a few metres away from a giant pothole that is being backfilled with gravel by unemployed men Tendai Chiungwa and Richard Makoni from Hatcliffe. The bakkie’s front tyre has been ripped apart by the huge pothole, which is not a surprising sight on almost every tarred road in Zimbabwe.

“I’m not employed by anyone to fix these potholes, but I feel that as youths it is our responsibility to alleviate this deteriorating road infrastructure and the country at large.

“My only expectation is that someone offers me a job, because receiving tokens of appreciation from motorists every day is not sustainable,” Chiungwa told DM168.

Chiungwa and Makoni shuttle between the pothole-riddled road and a nearby quarry dump, loading gravel into a wheelbarrow to cover the road craters that the Zimbabwean state declared a “National State of Disaster” in February 2021.

The leafy northern suburbs, where most of the ruling political and business elite live, are connected to the capital city by Pomona Road. Chiungwa and Makoni receive tokens of appreciation for their work in the form of money, food, clothes and other sundries.

The opposition Movement for Democratic Change-led local authorities and central government have played the blame game as the country’s roads continue to collapse, despite toll fees collected by the Zimbabwe National Road Administration (Zinara). The road administration agency is currently embroiled in an unresolved corruption scandal of more than $100-million (R1.5-billion) that mysteriously disappeared from its coffers.

In 2018, Zinara shocked many when it procured snow graders for road construction, despite Zimbabwe not experiencing snow or subzero weather conditions.

But the resilience of Zimbabweans surpasses many as they find positivity and the strength to go on amid a host of difficulties such as these.

Several unemployed youths around Harare have taken it upon themselves to cover these potholes and control traffic, using their own means and initiative, as the country continues to rank high in endemic corruption and poverty. While some engage in these positive acts of kindness and responsibility, many unemployed youths have turned to dangerous and life-threatening drugs.

According to the Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency’s last recorded official statistics in 2019, the unemployment rate stood at 16.4%, with 76% of employed people being in the informal sector, which according to the World Bank is characterised by low wages, poor working conditions, little or no social security or representation.

The Bretton Woods Institutions estimate that at least 7.9 million Zimbabweans are living in extreme poverty under the food poverty line of US$29.80 for each person per month.

However, in July 2021, the southern African country’s government registered a ZW$9.8-billion (US$19.5-million) budget surplus, but the reality on the streets remains grim as citizens struggle to make ends meet and live in extreme poverty.