BSR: Nyanga’s darkest night & the betrayal of innocent souls


The pull of Nyanga

With its rolling hills, ever-green foliage and breath-taking views that stretch as far as the eye can see, Nyanga is a truly beautiful land. There’s something serene and utterly enchanting about the mountainous terrain which makes up the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe. With tip of Mount Nyangani regularly draped in mist, standing majestically like a royal watching over its subjects below, one is humbled by and can only marvel at nature’s spellbinding handiwork.  Nyanga is so beautiful that when Cecil John Rhodes cast his eye over it, he decided he would have some of it for himself. There, on a plot that yielded a most generous view of Nyanga, Rhodes built a cottage. But he did not live long enough to enjoy the magnificence of his new possession. His big footprint, however, remains in the hallowed mountains.

In the 1930s, three decades after Rhodes’ demise, that little cottage in Nyanga was converted into a hotel. It still stands as Rhodes Nyanga Hotel, a name which bears the heavy weight of both geography and history. In its 21st century incarnation in cyberspace, the Rhodes Nyanga Hotel proudly announces one of its most prized rooms, “Historical Suite No. 8”, to which prospective guests are invited to “use some of the original furniture that belonged to Cecil John Rhodes” – again reiterating the pull of history.

Not far from here, at Gairezi, the legendary Chief Rekayi Tangwena fought running battles with the Rhodesian establishment, defending the land of his ancestors. The indomitable chief and his people would not be pushed off their land.

Such is the beauty of this land that whoever comes wants to stay and whoever stays does not wish to leave. It is impossible to imagine that a land of such natural splendour could also be a place of so much tragedy, pain and tears. But the cruel hand of tragedy does not select. It visits every place, no matter how beautiful. With all its beauty and pulling power, Nyanga, has also had its fair share of tragedy. There have been a number of inexplicable disappearances of visitors to Mount Nyangani and locals believe it swallows people on behalf of offended spirits. Science is yet to provide cogent answers to these mysterious disappearances. But it is a man-made tragedy that still haunts and dilutes my memory of this beautiful land.

Regina Coeli – Queen of Heaven

Regina Coeli is the name of a Catholic prayer described by one pro-Catholic website as “a wonderful tribute to our Lord’s resurrection and to the Blessed Virgin Mary”. When the Catholic Missionaries arrived in Zimbabwe, they established many centres from which to build the flock and spread the Word. But the Missions did not just deliver the Word alone. They also established centres of learning and in some cases, centres of medical healing. As part of this religious enterprise, they established Missions in the Nyanga area, which blended with the community. To one of them, they ascribed the name of their ancient prayer, Regina Coeli – which translates to Queen of Heaven.

On 3 August 1991, a group of nearly 100 students and teachers set off from Regina Coeli Mission, to attend a sports day at a sister school less than 100 miles away, called St Killian’s Mission, near Rusape. There, the young boys and girls spent their day playing sport and competing with their peers from various other schools. The end of the second term of the school year was nigh and the atmosphere would have been relaxed. Although their senior football team lost to their more accomplished brothers of Marist Nyanga, the loss was an honourable one as they had punched well above their weight. As anyone who has ever travelled from a sports day out, win or lose, they are always jovial occasions. The boys and girls would have been happy and relaxed after a day out.

Those of us who attended boarding school know that such events are not just occasions for sport. They are also social occasions where unions between young people discovering adulthood are negotiated and formed, while existing ones are nourished. It is likely such unions were formed or cemented on that day and that good-byes were said to both old and new companions as the day ended, believing there would be another time. They would have been carrying in their young hearts, bubbling with the joy and excitement of young love, promises to write or expectations to receive beautiful letters from their companions. Addresses, and for the better-placed ones, phone numbers, would have been exchanged.

But, as events of that night unfolded, the promising future was never going to happen. No one at St Killian’s Mission on that day could have foreseen the darkness that would befall their peers as they travelled back to Regina Coeli Mission. For on this dark night, the hand of fate dealt a heavy and cruel blow upon the beautiful land of Nyanga. The lights that had shown so brightly all day were extinguished in the most vicious way.

They were so close when it happened – less than 20 miles from their school, when the driver lost control of the bus on a sharp and precarious bend of the road. From there, the bus crashed into a gorge, sending all but a few passengers to very painful deaths. All in all, 83 students lost their lives that night, together with 5 teachers and the crew. Young, athletic and promising lives gone just like that. One of the passengers, a Ms Will Stegman, was an expatriate teacher of Dutch nationality who had recently got married. Apparently, her new husband had just arrived at the school and was awaiting her return that night. She was one of the victims of that carnage. Love and tragedy are never far apart.

There has never been a bigger bus disaster in Zimbabwe. It occupied pages of newspapers at home and as far afield as London, New York and Los Angeles. These were just young kids. Their tragic loss touched the world in a profound way.

A wounded nation

I remember it very well. I was far away at fellow Catholic school, St Francis of Assisi, a few miles from Chivhu. I was doing Form 4 and we had just completed our Mid-Year exams, getting ready to return home. News of the tragedy arrived on the 4th of August, the day after it happened. It was shocking and devastating. It was scary to imagine what had happened. There was a sombre atmosphere across the school as the news spread.

At Mass, we joined our priests and nuns as we petitioned the Lord to have mercy on their young souls. We also petitioned for the healing of the few who had miraculously survived. We pleaded on behalf of their families and friends, asking that they be comforted. We also asked for the hand of protection – weren’t we all vulnerable? These were young people – our peers and contemporaries. It could have been any one of us. It could have been our best friends. It was hard to imagine how the students at Regina Coeli were coping. A mix of pain and fear weighed heavily on our young minds.

Personally, I struggled to process what had happened. I remember pushing my tiny bed closer to my neighbour’s in my dorm because I felt very nervous that night. And I was not alone. Soon, we would be boarding buses to go home and that thought alone, after what had happened, scared many of us. I imagine many kids around Zimbabwe at the time felt a profound sense of loss too. Kids at schools around the country made their own personal donations. It was a tragedy that touched the hearts of the entire nation.

Those who survived

Three years ago, Cletus Mshanawani wrote a brilliant feature on the Nyanga Bus Disaster in The Manica Post, Manicaland’s provincial newspaper. He spoke to three of the survivors of that terrible disaster. Naturally, their recollection of events makes painful reading. It is clear from their stories that their lives were changed forever on that fateful night and that they have never truly healed. How could they? They were just kids who went through the most traumatic experience. They saw and heard their friends die agonising deaths, friends they had been singing with on the journey.

Just a few weeks later, they had to return to the same school, where occupants of dormitories would never return. “When we returned for the third term, we were only two students in our dormitory out of 10 who used to occupy it,” said one survivor, Ignatius Bukuta, “We were relocated to other dormitories, but this did not help as voices of my dying friends would continue visiting me. I sat for my O-Level examinations, but the horror of the disaster continued haunting me resulting in me performing below expectations …” I shudder to imagine how the authorities allowed a traumatised boy to sit exams that would determine the course of his life so soon after such a horrific experience. Clearly, the system failed him.

But it is what caused the tragedy that makes the story even more painful. Painful because the tragedy was avoidable. First, the bus was obviously overloaded. The bus appeared to have nearly 100 passengers and crew. 91 of them died. With so many people, the bus was a moving disaster. There was clearly no consideration for the health and safety of passengers. Second, according to eyewitnesses, the bus was clearly over-speeding, which was grossly negligent given the winding nature of the road which has snake turns around the mountainous terrain. Anyone who has driven on the roads of the Eastern Highlands knows how treacherous they are, what with their sharp bends and blind rises. Of the driver, no matter how experienced, they demand the caution of a chameleon.

Worse, the driver had been warned already. Bukuta says a motorist driving behind the bus had cautioned the driver at a service station where the bus had stopped to refuel. Even the students themselves had pleaded with the driver to reduce speed having observed in Bukuta’s words, that the bus was “literally flying”. However, says Bukuta, “it seems the caution provoked the devil in him as he increased speed” from the moment he was warned by the concerned motorist. He ignored the pleas of the terrified students. One of the teachers who survived, a Mrs Lilliosa Manjoro was quoted in the New York Times as saying that the driver has “stubbornly refused” to take heed of advice.

Instead, he pleaded experience in defence of his disagreeable performance, arguing that he had driven on more difficult terrain, citing the hair-raising Boterekwa Range in Shurugwi as his reference point. Clearly, he was a stubborn character. The students realised that they were in the hands of an irresponsible driver and they prayed for a safe arrival. Some reports say some students were so nervous that they pleaded to be dropped off so that they could complete the journey on foot. That’s how bad it was. But the warnings and pleas were ignored. Instead, he drove them to premature deaths.

That was the end for so many young and promising lives. Painful deaths that were entirely avoidable. Bukuta says when he made his way out of the wreckage, he tried to offer help to colleagues who were still alive and crying out for help. But dazed by the trauma of what had just happened, the young boy had no idea where to start. It was dark and there were so many desperate pleas for help all over the crash scene. Eventually he ran to a nearby village to summon help. But when he got there everyone was fast asleep. He had to bang on doors and threw stones to wake them up. Eventually, people woke up and trudged along to the scene of tragedy. But it was too late for many of his schoolmates. “Only groans were now being heard as death visited my colleagues …” he told the Manica Post. I cannot imagine how he has gone through the years after such an ordeal.

The Manica Post spoke to another survivor, Moses Dudzai, who was only doing Form 2 when this happened. “I am still suffering from a painful leg up to this day. No one compensated us, save for the small stipends which we used to get through the Social Welfare, which have since been stopped”. Shieila Doto who was in Form 1 at the time is the third survivor interviewed by the Manica Post. She told the paper that she suffers panic attacks, especially whenever she has to use public transport. But she has no choice. She has to endure the panic attacks. She lost two front teeth in the accident and was so traumatised that for three weeks she never spoke a word. She was a decent netball player but she says since that day, she never played again. She has had to endure the trauma of passing by the spot regularly – “Whenever I pass through the scene of the accident, I just close my eyes because the pain is just unbearable,” she told the Manica Post. Clearly, the long-term effects of trauma have wrecked her life. Her attempt at marriage ended in failure.

Survivor Guilt

It is likely that these and other survivors have suffered greatly since the tragic accident. The wounds are not just physical. They also affect the mind. Yet this aspect of mental health is not given enough attention. Psychologists talk of “Survivor Guilt” a phenomenon where a person who survives a traumatic event while others die feels a sense of guilt, even though there is no rational basis for that feeling. There is nothing that the survivor could have done, but they nevertheless feel guilty. The survivor asks himself why he survived while others died and feels an irrational sense of responsibility. Writing in the New York Times on this phenomenon in relation to soldiers returning from war, Nancy Sherman says, “Soldiers often carry this burden [of guilt] home — survivor guilt being perhaps the kind most familiar to us.  In war, standing here rather than there can save your life but cost a buddy his. It’s flukish luck, but you feel responsible. The guilt begins an endless loop of counterfactuals ‑ thoughts that you could have or should done otherwise, though in fact you did nothing wrong.  The feelings are, of course, not restricted to the battlefield.”

Likewise, those who survive traumatic events like bus disasters, where the majority of fellow passengers die, are likely to suffer Survivor Guilt. They ask themselves why they survived while others died. This is worse when those who died were known or close to the survivor. The initial feeling of being the lucky one eventually morphs into feelings of guilt which wrecks their mental and emotional health. But how many of these people who have survived traumatic incidents like these have been attended to? They have been left to roam through life, carrying heavy burden of guilt. The system fails them because very little, if anything, is done to deal with this type of trauma.

Mugging the dead

These days, people complain that society’s moral fibre is broken as stories circulate of groups that steal from the dead at accident scenes. But if truth be told, the mugging started a long time ago, except that the culprits wore government robes. There was a huge outpouring of grief after the Nyanga Bus Disaster. Large amounts of money were raised to support the survivors and relatives of the deceased. However, on 20 September 1998, The Zimbabwe Standard newspaper reported that the $608 440 which was donated by both local and foreign well-wishers in 1993 had not even reached the beneficiaries. According to an official report of the US Treasury, a single US dollar in 1993 was equivalent to 6.3 Zimbabwe dollars, which means the total raised was USD 96,578. However, seven years after the disaster, the money was unaccounted for. As The Zimbabwe Standard commented, parents of the affected children were never told how much was raised and the funds disappeared while in the hands of government officials. It is clear that the donated funds were abused by rent-seekers in government robes. Unsurprisingly, no one was ever held accountable for the losses.

Why Nyanga matters

I have recounted the Nyanga Bus Disaster because it had the most profound impact on me at a young age and left an indelible mark on the mind. Perhaps it was because they were kids. They were my peers. Reading Bukuta’s account brought back the anguish of those sad days in August 1991. Bukuta was in my year – we wrote O Levels together in 1991 and many of those who died would have been writing O Levels with me that year, some the following years. It was hard enough for us writing this major exam which would define our lives. I cannot imagine how and why they were expected to do it in that state. The system was not fair. Those who marked Bukuta’s papers and those of his fellow students did so blindly without any knowledge or concession given for what had happened. It was unfair on them.

The accident itself, like many others, was avoidable. The evidence points to negligence, on the part of the driver who was over-speeding and refusing to heed caution, the school authorities who seem to have exceeded the bus’s carrying capacity and the transport operator for not adhering to licence terms and conditions and vicariously for its driver’s negligence. There is evidence also of government’s utter failure to look after the emotional and psychological welfare of the victims and relatives. From the Manica Post story, there is indication that the victims still suffer PTSD, a psychological condition that affects those who have gone through traumatic experiences.

There have been many bus disasters over the years, killing and maiming thousands of people. I also remember the Chivake Bridge disaster in 1989, the worst before the Nyanga Bus Disaster three years later. That one claimed 79 lives, many of them farmers who were returning home on the Nhamburo Bus after doing business in Harare. That same year in August 34 people were killed in an accident in Mazowe. In 1982, another terrible bus disaster had claimed 61 lives, the majority of them farmers from Dande. They were on their way to attend a field day when they met their fate. Early this year, a bus burnt to ashes, killing more than 20 people.

And just last week, a King Lion bus on its way to Chirundu crashed at Nyamakate, brutally ending 43 lives on the spot. Most of the passengers were vendors on their way to trade across the border in neighbouring Zambia. They were the breadwinners doing their best to fend for their families in an increasingly tough economic environment. In a 2009 research study of the then newly-introduced driver pre-testing scheme in Zimbabwe, researcher Tatenda Mbara of the University of Johannesburg found that the rate of accidents in Zimbabwe is approximately 35 fatalities per 100 000 people which is “an extremely high rate” compared to the average fatality rate in the 10 most highly motorised countries (HMCs) which is 12 per 100 000 people. Mbara also quoted the ZRP statistics in 2009 which indicated that road accidents accounted for an average of 3 500 fatalities per year.  These are high figures indeed, demonstrating the menace of road accidents in Zimbabwe.

There is one recurring feature in most of these tragic accidents: some passengers would have tried to caution the driver who almost invariably is stubborn and refuses to take heed. This confirmed by survivors in both the Nyamakate and Nyanga bus crashes. In both cases, passengers believed the driver was over-speeding and putting their lives in danger. In both cases, some passengers pleaded with the driver reduce speed. In both cases, the driver was adamant and his conduct had tragic results for innocent passengers. It is more likely that this is the case in most of the disasters that happen. The drivers refuse to listen. Sadly in both cases none of the drivers lived to answer for their conduct. But even if they had lived, they might even have got away with charges of culpable homicide. It’s high time for the bar to be raised so that bus drivers who behave in that manner face more serious charges. There is need for law enforcement to set a tough precedent as a deterrent. At present drivers and operators treat passengers with contempt because they know law enforcement authorities treat them with kid gloves.

The “Human factor”

While there are many factors that cause accidents ranging from faulty vehicles and bad roads to bad weather conditions, by far the major causal factor is the human factor. In other words, accidents often occur due to failures of persons in charge of or responsible for the vehicle. Such persons are not restricted to the driver only. They also include the owner of the vehicle, the government inspectors, regulators, supervisors and law enforcement authorities. All of them have a contributory role to what happens on the roads. In his afore-mentioned study, Mbara informs us that according to the Traffic Safety Council of Zimbabwe, 90% of all accidents are due to human error. He defines human error as broadly including failure to control the vehicle, poor decision-making, lapse of judgment, failure to obey rules of the road and generally a poor attitude towards other road-users. Such factors attributed to human factors include driving whilst under the influence of intoxicating substances, over-speeding, overcrowding, failing to wear a seat-belt, over-taking at prohibited spots and driving through red traffic lights. It is amazing how locals in Zimbabwe view the seat-belt with contempt. People would not be thrown out of vehicles if they wore seatbelts. Most advanced countries insist on the wearing of seatbelts because it is scientifically proven that they save lives in accidents. Zimbabweans attitude to the seatbelt has to change. It is not a nuisance, but a lifesaver.

The lack of simple courtesy on the roads is symptomatic of the generally poor, aggressive and hostile attitude of motorists on the roads. Everyone is in a hurry, often to nowhere as they all get stuck in unnecessary and avoidable jams if people applied common sense and courtesy. Walking in the streets of Harare, one has to get accustomed to the fact that there is absolutely no respect for the pedestrian, even where they must have the right of way at pedestrian crossings. You can’t rely on the indicator light to make a decision because no-one takes notice of it and certainly no one respects it. In fact, driving on the highway at night, you soon learn that when a motorist on the other side is indicating, it is most likely that they are not turning. Rather, driving in the unlit, dark roads, where head-on collisions are not uncommon, motorists have improvised and use indicator lights to inform the other motorists where their vehicle ends. This helps to prevent collisions. It’s an unwritten rule that is generally understood by locals but someone who is unfamiliar with it would struggle. Driving at night is a nightmare because 90% of the drivers flash their lights permanently, regardless of on-coming traffic. When it rains, it’s as if an alarm has been switched on announcing the suspension of normal rules of the road. The abnormal has truly become normal.

The human factor also extends to passengers or public transport operators who encourage drivers to drive at high speed. For passengers, they want to reach their destinations faster while operators are driven by economic factors – the more trips their drivers make, the more money they bring home. These drivers often operate on the basis of daily targets. They are supposed to make a minimum amount of money per day. This incentivises drivers to not only work hard to meet the owner’s target but it also means they can make extra cash for themselves once they have met the owner’s target. But this also means they will be overworking and by the end of the day there will be many tired drivers on the roads. This is the great moral hazard that arises from the system of targets, driven by the relentless pursuit of profit.

There are other reasons that are often cited for these tragedies such as faulty vehicles and bad roads. However, my argument is that these factors are intimately linked to the human factor. It is true that Zimbabwe’s roads are bad – there are too many potholes and they are truly hazardous. These problems have worsened over time due to over-use and lack of maintenance. Roads are public infrastructure and a responsibility of the government. They do not make themselves or regenerate like vegetation. The fact that they are in such a bad state is a direct result of poor governance. The government has neglected its duties. Blaming roads for causing accidents is in fact blaming government. Likewise, vehicles do not maintain themselves. Their owners are responsible for their upkeep. One of the common causes of accidents is burst tyres. Often transport operators use sub-standard or second hand tyres because they are cheaper. However, they are a health hazard, not just for passengers but for other road-users. The fact that law enforcement authorities permit sub-standard vehicles on the roads contributes to the problem. All these challenges arise from the human factor. It is the decisions made by government officials, by transport operators and drivers that ultimately result in accidents. At this point, we must take a careful look at the role of government which has supervisory and regulatory authority over public transport operators.

What’s to be done? 

A quick look at the legislation and regulations demonstrates that there is already a large amount of laws and authorities that are designed to promote road safety and reduce road carnage. As I have stated, the problem is not the absence of laws, but the fact that these laws are not properly enforced. Where there is an appearance of enforcement, it is generally compromised by corruption, also a feature of the human factor. The law requires passenger transport operators to have authorisations – the vehicle has to be licenced, they must have permission to ply a specific route and the vehicle must have a certificate of fitness. If there are weaknesses in the law, they are in the lack of detail.

However, they pale in comparison to the fact that the entire system is compromised by corruption. From the application for a provisional drivers’ licence to the application for permission to operate and a certificate of fitness of the vehicle, the system is corrupt. The enforcement by police is thoroughly corrupt. The moral hazard is that vehicles or drivers that are not supposed to be on the roads are allowed to operate. They operate because they would have paid rents to government officials who have the power to grant these authorisations or enforce the law. The presence of so many unroadworthy vehicles and unfit persons driving on Zimbabwe’s roads are therefore due to the human factor.

Safety regulator

The Traffic Safety Council of Zimbabwe, established in terms of the Traffic Safety Council Act (Chapter 13:17) is responsible for promoting safety on roads. Its functions include publishing the Highway Code and regulating driving schools and the minimum standards of practice to be observed by these schools. It sets standards for licencing of individuals as drivers. It has an advisory role to the Minister of Transport on matters relating to road safety. The TSCZ has a website, which at first sight looks impressive but it is virtually empty of relevant content. 90% of the tabs and links on the website lead to nowhere. On statistics, it lists just 2 accidents – one in 2009 and another in 2013. The last Annual Report is for 2013 but the link doesn’t even work. It points to severe weaknesses in this important body, whose voice is hardly ever heard when accidents occur and when it does, it is to issue standard statements without taking any substantive action to address the underlying problem. With the rate and magnitude of accidents involving public transport operators, one would expect a stronger voice and visibility of this government institution.

Guardian of road-users

Most Zimbabweans have no idea that there is actually a road transport supervisor and regulator, provided for by law. Another key government office with an important role in the area of road safety is the Commissioner of Road Transport, established under the Road Motor Transportation Act, 1997. The Commissioner oversees inspections of passenger carrying vehicles to ensure their suitability. It is this office that is responsible for issuing and withdrawing licences for the transportation of passengers and goods. The Commissioner can at any time carry out “investigations as he considers necessary to assist him to come to a decision regarding the issue, operation, suspension, cancellation, renewal or amendment of any licence, certificate of fitness or route authority”. Overall, the Commissioner has general powers “to do all things that are reasonably necessary to ensure that authorised persons comply with terms and conditions of their authorisations.”

These are important powers and functions which make the Commissioner the gatekeeper for the road transport industry. This office can determine who can operate within that industry, whether carrying goods or passengers. The powers of investigation also make the Commissioner a law enforcement officer. Thus, when there is a major disaster one would expect the Commissioner to invoke his powers of investigation. Indeed, this is what happens in other jurisdictions where similar offices exist. If an aircraft crashes, it is the job of the office responsible for air crash investigations to do that investigation. It does not just leave it to the police. These specialised agencies exist because they are supposed to be manned by experts who work in conjunction with or provide evidence to the police should there be need for criminal investigations. That these types of investigations are not heard of when such bus disasters occur suggests that the Commissioner is sleeping on the job. Certainly, despite numerous major bus disasters, the public has hardly ever heard a word from the Commissioner of Road Transport. After such a disaster, one would order expect the Commissioner to take urgent steps including possible suspension of the licence for the passenger transport operator while all its vehicles and drivers are inspected.

This role effectively makes the Commissioner the guardian of all road-users. She must demonstrate concern for and take steps to protect the public. When a tragedy such as a bus disaster occurs, it is dereliction of duty for the Commissioner to pretend that it is business as usual. The role of the Commissioner may in some ways be equated to the role of the supervisor of banks, in our case the Governor of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe. The Governor has the power to issue or withdraw licences to operate banking business. He must ensure that only suitably qualified persons are authorised. Even as they operate their business, banks are regularly inspected to ensure they are complying with the rules. For example, there are minimum capital requirements and there are minimum qualifications for persons who occupy senior roles in banks. Banks are required to have compliance officers whose job is to ensure they are complying with regulatory rules. There is deposit insurance scheme to ensure customers whose banks close get at least some compensation. These are stringent conditions for bankers, designed to promote financial stability and protect depositors’ funds.

By contrast, when it comes to the business of transporting people, which has direct impact on human life, the bar is set at a very low level. Money, it seems, is more important than human life. Of course, these stringent requirements in the banking industry don’t guarantee success and on occasions the regulators fail dismally as revealed by the Global Financial Crisis a decade ago. Indeed, even with these regulations, banks do fail, but things might be so much worse if there was no supervision. Despite the fact that the law provides for a Commissioner of Road Transport, very few, if any people have ever heard of him or her. I had to send a volunteer to check the name at the Ministry of Transport. Her name is listed as Mrs J.N.M Mathema and it is likely most readers are finding out for the first time that there is such a Commissioner in Zimbabwe. She is the guardian of passengers and other road-users on Zimbabwe’s roads.

It is notable that the Commissioner does not even seem to appreciate the regulatory and supervisory nature of her role. For example, it says on a government website that profiles the Road Motor Transport which the Commissioner runs that its “Mission is to facilitate and regulate national and cross border traffic flow in a manner that optimises mobility and accessibility thus contributing to the seamless integration of Southern African Development Community and CoMESA states”. This shows that the Commissioner is more concerned with issues of mobility and accessibility and says nothing about public protection. Yet the functions clearly demonstrate that she has an important role in protecting the public against unfit transport operators, vehicles and drivers. The reason why the Commissioner has investigatory powers and authority to suspend or cancel operators’ licences is precisely because she has a role to protect the public.

It may be that the Commissioner thinks that mandate only belongs to the Traffic Safety Council of Zimbabwe, which also falls under the Transport Ministry.  The laws which establish both give them a mandate to protect the public and they must share that responsibility. In fact, it might even be better to merge the two offices to create an integrated roads and safety regulator which deals with all the combined functions. This will avoid duplication of functions or grey areas which lead to confusion. Meanwhile, with all the major disasters on the roads, Commissioner Mathema must not only act, but must be seen to be acting.   She has jurisdiction over an area that directly affects ordinary people and tragedies have brought misery and suffering to countless families under his watch. Her role is not simply to issue licences and permits but as I have pointed out, she has important investigatory powers which are not being used in the wake of major road disasters.

Lack of disaster preparedness

Accidents do kill people but many people end up dying for lack of emergency medical treatment. If victims got emergency care and treatment, many would probably survive. In other words, even after an accident has happened, some deaths are avoidable if there is proper care. Bukuta, one of the few survivors in the Nyanga Bus Disaster painfully recounts how he watched his fellow students die, all because there was no immediate emergency treatment nearby. In the recent bus disaster in Nyamakate, the nearest hospital in the town of Karoi had no ambulance. They had to wait for ambulances from as far away as Chinhoyi and Kariba. The irony of all this is that just a couple of weeks before the accident, President Mugabe had travelled to Mexico with huge entourage which must have consumed millions of dollars in costs. The conference was on disaster preparedness, but this bus disaster demonstrated how unprepared the country was in dealing with disasters.

The simple reality is that the government gets its priorities wrong. Most of the money wasted on the numerous foreign trips could be used to buy ambulances and medical equipment required in disaster situations, things that would save lives. A few years ago, when Retired General Solomon Mujuru died in a fire, a fire engine arrived from Harare but it had no water. Harare, the country’s capital had to receive a foreign donation of fire engines a few years later. The Civil Protection Unit, which is supposed to respond to disasters of this nature is also severely under-resourced. However, each Minister in Mugabe’s large cabinet has at least two top of the range government-issued vehicles – a Land Rover Discovery 4 and a Mercedes Benz. In practice, most own a fleet, bought cheaply from government at book value. Heads of state institutions and parastatals or even board members of the many state institutions all have expensive vehicles for personal use.

Yet, in stark contrast, hospitals and clinics across the country do not have ambulances and basic equipment which would cost far less. People use ox-drawn carts and wheel-barrows to ferry the sick and injured. People die not just because of the accidents, but because not enough is done to save them in emergency situations. This is down to an inept and uncaring government whose priorities are completely skewed. The system kills survivors of accidents simply because it does not respond adequately to disasters.

Right to emergency healthcare

It is important to note that the Constitution of Zimbabwe guarantees the right to emergency healthcare treatment. Section 76(3) the highest law in the country provides that “No person may be refused emergency medical treatment in any health-care institution.” The broad nature of this right is reflected by the wording which does not respect the obligation to provide emergency health-care to state institutions only. By referring to “any health-care institution” the provision includes both public and private health-care institutions. It is therefore unconstitutional and unlawful for a private hospital to refuse emergency health-care treatment. This means where there is an accident and emergency treatment is required, any provider of health-care services is constitutionally obliged to render emergency treatment to victims of the accident. Demanding payment or placing other conditions before treatment would arguably be an undue restriction upon this fundamental right.

The logic behind this right is clear: when a person is in need of emergency treatment, usually as a result of an accident, they must be able to access such treatment regardless of their economic status. Such persons are in a position of weakness, without access to money or general resources for treatment. In other words, the logic behind this right is that life takes priority over profit and this is noble. What this means is that if there is a major incident such as the bus disaster in Nyamakate, help should have been summoned from private health-care institutions. If there were private ambulance services in Karoi, they should have been summoned and used in terms of section 76(3) of the Constitution.

Suing public transport operators

Of all the parties involved in major accidents, the owners must shoulder the lion’s share of responsibility. At law, the principle of vicarious liability means the company to which the offending bus belongs can be held liable for its driver’s negligence. The law on this is settled. The critical exercise is to gather evidence that proves negligence on the part of the driver and/or the company. As long as the core elements are satisfied, the bus company must take responsibility. Where companies lack sufficient assets to satisfy the amounts of compensation, one route is to persuade the courts to lift the corporate veil in order to hold the individual owners accountable.

It is important to note that by law, public transport operators must have insurance which covers passengers in the event of an accident. A lawsuit against the bus company must therefore include the insurance company as a party. For survivors and relatives of victims, it is always important to get information on the identity of the insurer for the company whose vehicle was involved in an accident. If liability is found, it is the insurance company that pays out the compensation. It hurts the operator since a pay-out by the insurer increases its risk profile and might lead to an increase in insurance premiums. However, for the consumers, it’s a vicious cycle, as operators are likely to pass on the higher cost of insurance premiums through raising prices for their services. Still, survivors must not be dissuaded from pursuing compensation claims against the bus companies.

As we have observed the state has extensive regulatory and supervisory powers in the public transport sector. These powers are vested in the Commissioner of Road. She has the powers to launch immediate investigations and to impose penalties ranging from suspension of licences to outright bans. In the past, after a spate of fatal accidents, B&C buses were suspended for some time. However, there is no indication that this power has been used in recent years. As long as operators know that they do not have to pay the penalty for their role in this carnage, they have no incentive to reform. Instead, they will continue to cut corners in order to reduce costs and increase profits. In this regard, lawyers must also consider holding the state accountable where there is evidence of failure to carry out its supervisory and regulatory duties. If there is evidence that the Commissioner of Road Transport neglected her duties and permitted otherwise unfit operators to operate when they should have known better, legal action must be pursued to hold the state accountable.

Tackling consumer ignorance

The lack of knowledge of rights of consumers is a big problem which means most public transport operators literally get away with murder. Most victims, survivors or their surviving families are completely oblivious of their rights to receive or pursue compensation claims from public transport operators. They can sue for wrongful death, pain and suffering, for physical injuries and emotional trauma. They can also sue for consequential loss, such as loss of income. These are perfectly legitimate legal claims that can be made but most people have no clue where to begin. Public transport operators donate food, a coffin and token payments in cash and they are never seen again. The fact that they do not bear financial responsibility for their negligence means they have no reason to change their ways.

In other countries, suing for compensation is big business for lawyers. The derogatory term “ambulance chaser” is used in reference to the type of lawyer who specialises in pursuing victims and survivors of accidents. They are called ambulance chasers because they literally attend at accident scenes for no other reason but to find clients and if it means pursuing the ambulance to the hospital, they will do it. In some cases, they send out random calls to people, asking if they have had accidents in the recent past and if so, offering to represent them. They can be quite a nuisance and this practice is banned in other countries, where the belief is that clients must come to lawyers and not the other way round. It is not uncommon, where advertising by lawyers is permitted, for law firms to openly sell their services as specialists in negligence cases, even putting up huge billboards on the highways. They often operate on a “No win No fee” basis – in other words, you only pay if you win, but the trick is that they take a hefty chunk of that compensation.

Zimbabwe still adheres to tradition and advertising by lawyers is still frowned upon. Whatever the merits of this traditional approach, the downside is that members of the public who are oblivious of their rights wallow in their ignorance. There has been no growth in the culture of holding persons to account, especially if they are big businesses with financial muscle and legal representation. Even if they know, victims are intimidated.  Sometimes they are silenced with token out of court payments. Drinkers who find foreign objects in their drinks are easily silenced with a crate of more alcohol. The idea is not to encourage a culture of ambulance-chasing among lawyers but that consumers of public transport services must be thoroughly educated about their rights and lawyers must explore innovative ways to represent victims or survivors against these offending public transport operators.

Courts and compensation rates

Zimbabwean courts are still fairly conservative when it comes to awarding compensation. This is in sharp contrast to levels of compensation awarded by courts in other jurisdictions, with the US courts being an extreme example where multi-million dollar punitive damages against negligent businesses are awarded. Such compensation rates would bankrupt companies in small economies like Zimbabwe. Nevertheless, courts must give reasonable compensation rates that provide a deterrence effect against negligence. In good times, public transport operators make large profits on their businesses. They must take more responsibility when they cause death and injuries to consumers. They must hire qualified staff and allow them professional development courses.  They must use fair working practices and schedules to prevent tiredness. Finally, they must ensure that their vehicles are fit and proper to carry passengers. The work arrangement where drivers are supposed to meet specific targets incentivises them to work hard for the operator and guarantees a minimum amount of income but it also increases tiredness and the risk of causing accidents. Just as bank regulators prohibit certain practices, the road transport regulators must prohibit work practices that have potential to cause hazard.

Networks of cooperation

In the past, I have argued that the most effective way to get a result is to form large networks of cooperation. That is why like-minded persons or organisations get together to achieve commonly held purposes. Workers are more effective as members of unions. Businesses achieve more in their engagement with government when they form an association. Bank customers have an uneven relationship with banks because while the latter are fewer, they have a bankers’ association, whereas the millions of customers do not have an association. When they engage government, bankers speak with one authoritative voice through their association, while customers do not have any formal representation. In electoral matters, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission engages political parties and sometimes civil society organisations. However, the majority of people who are not members of political parties or civil society organisations are virtually unrepresented.

Likewise, transport operators have their own lobby groups, while passengers do not have the same representation. The nearest there is to a network is the Cross-Border Traders Association but it seems to be politically compromised. In other countries there are associations that represent users of rail or bus services. These networks of cooperation mean passengers have a strong and authoritative voice when it comes to policy matters relating to public service transportation. An effective Passengers Association of Zimbabwe would engage the Commissioner of Road Transportation, the Traffic Safety Council, transport operators and other stakeholders to ensure laws, policies and practices provide effective cover to passengers. It’s high time members of the public who use public service transport form a network of cooperation to represent their interests more powerfully.

Embracing forms of protest

There are other peaceful and effective ways of putting pressure on public transport operators. In other countries, consumer boycott is an effective means of correcting wrong behaviour of businesses. It is effective because it affects the bottom line of the business and no business wants to lose income. If a public transport operator gains notoriety for failing to protect customers, a boycott of its services would affect their revenues. However, this works only if there are effective networks of cooperation to organise and mobilise people. The people must be united in their cause otherwise the operator will simply ignore the protests. The people must know and believe that they have enormous power in their hands and that the operator needs them more than they need him.

The big handicap that limits the effectiveness of this strategy is that even if people were willing to join in, their choices are restricted. Poverty is the big enemy and that again lies at the door of an inept government which has failed to grow the economy and therefore nurture competition. In some cases, a route has only one bus. The people have no choice if they want to travel, hence they are at the mercy of the operator and his driver. If they protest, they are likely to be punished by the crew. Without competition on the routes, there is no choice and therefore no room for boycotts. Passengers have to toe the line and the crew abuse their position of power. This calls for new strategies and therefore invites national discussion on this issue.


Back in the early days, people were outraged when bus disasters happened. In some cases, the government even declared days of mourning. Funds and other donations were raised across the country. People mourned with the families of the dead. People stood together. After the Nyanga Bus Disaster, musicians across the country got together and raised funds. Today, there is little appetite for such donations. Such disasters have become the norm. People are outraged when it happens, then they go back to their daily routine and get outraged again when the next disaster happens. Besides, people got frustrated when they realised their donations were being abused by unscrupulous government officials. As pointed out in this article, survivors of earlier bus disasters were left in the lurch, despite people having made a large amount of donations to their cause.

Today, the economy is in terrible shape and very few people have funds to spare for donations. They empathise but they can’t do much in material terms. But worryingly, where government officials used to steal from funds raised for survivors, today, the moral fibre of society is so broken that some of those who attend to accident scenes first rummage through the wreckage, including searching pockets of the deceased and injured, to steal money and other possessions. I grew up in a society that feared and respected death. We were taught to respect the dead. Stealing from the dead was considered a taboo. It was an abomination that would invite tough cultural sanctions against the offender. Belief in and fear of these cultural sanctions kept people on the path of decency. But a combination of greed, poverty and denigration of local culture has conspired to break these age-old cultural codes that bound society together and instilled a sense of discipline. This is why a man will grab whatever they can get from the wreckage, leaving a fellow human dying. It’s what happens in a broken society.

26 years ago, I mourned the young boys and girls who perished in Nyanga. It was a gut-wrenching tragedy that has never escaped memory. It is as hard to take now, as it was then. The same spot has claimed more lives over the years. There have been many similar crashes since 1991 and each time government pretends to show some concern but ultimately does nothing to improve things. It’s probably because they are not affected. They or their families never have to endure the rude aggressive and hostile service on the buses. Some of them probably own the buses. Nyanga should have been a turning point. Instead, they stole from the dead and the few who survived.

It is only fitting to close with the words of Regina Coeli – the Catholic prayer after which the school was named:

“Queen of Heaven, rejoice, alleluia.
For he, whom you did merit to bear, alleluia.
Has risen as he said, alleluia.
Pray for us to God, alleluia.

V. Rejoice and be glad, O Virgin Mary, alleluia.
R. For the Lord is truly risen, alleluia.

Let us pray: O God, who gave joy to the world through the resurrection of thy Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, grant we beseech thee, that through the intercession of the Virgin Mary, his Mother, we may obtain the joys of everlasting life. Through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.”

May the souls of those who perished at Nyanga and other sites rest in eternal peace. May our government take responsibility.

I know too well that this hasn’t been an easy read for many people, especially survivors or relatives of those who lost their lives in these accidents. It hasn’t been easy for me to write it too. But this is a matter that demands serious national dialogue and solutions. The government and its institutions as well as commercial operators have in many ways failed passengers and victims of these disasters. But we the people must also repair the moral bonds that seem to have broken down. Even animals have empathy towards each other. They mourn their own when they die and they help those in distress. But we humans are stealing from the dead and wounded, instead of helping them. We are taking pictures and videos instead of helping them. We have to change.