CURFEW breaking is widespread in Harare, with a growing number of cars seen driving around northern suburbs late at night, although shopping centres are abandoned in these suburbs, and with vending and public drinking common at high-density suburban shopping centres well into the night.
Earlier in the evening there are the non-deliberate curfew breakers, generally those who have battled to catch a pair of buses to get home, since many have to find one bus to get from their workplaces to the city centre and a second one to get from there to their nearest bus stop and then need to walk home.
The queues at the nearest bus stop to their workplace and at the terminus in town where they catch their home bus are sometimes long, and many have to wait at both for the second or third Zupco bus going their way.
But as the night progresses these accidental curfew breakers, who generally are now wearing masks, are safely home while the deliberate curfew breaking starts, with social visits and people seeking entertainment and companionship while they drink. These deliberate curfew breakers generally shun masks and are quite happy to huddle together, shake hands and laugh at social distancing rules.
While police say they are concerned about the numbers breaching curfew regulations, patrols are few and most roadblocks are lifted as darkness falls, making it easy for those who reckon they cannot fall sick to do exactly what they want.
At the beginning of the curfew, most did their best to follow the regulations, at least until they could find out about how heavy enforcement was, but traffic and social gatherings quickly built up.
A night curfew from 6pm to 6am for all but essential services and a retreat to 8am to 3pm working hours for exempted but non-essential businesses was imposed three weeks ago as part of measures to slow infection rates.
While the formal sectors follow the new working hours, with police checking at many supermarkets and strolling down the pavements in the city centre and at suburban shopping centres as 3pm approaches to make sure they obey, vendors tend to be more flexible and are prepared to play cat-and-mouse with the authorities.
This reached a crescendo at Kamfinsa on Friday afternoon when three police officers in a pick-up truck fired tear gas canisters into the car park shortly before 4pm in an attempt to disperse vendors but hitting the queues at the five pharmacies in the shopping centre harder and with tear smoke drifting into neighbouring blocks of flats where a lot of old people live.
But about 20 minutes later there was more intelligent enforcement when a truck brought in police officers who actively ambushed and arrested most of the vendors breaching the 3pm business hours limit but leaving everyone else alone.
But such enforcement is rare. A good example can be found in Epworth where bars are open and vending common late at night within half a kilometre of a 24-hour roadblock, and where those being checked at the roadblock can easily hear the noise of partying drinkers, but the police take little notice. The drinking is active at the other two shopping centres late at night as well, but these are out of earshot of the police.
Even where there are patrols, the word is quickly passed that “the cops are on the way”, and vendors and their customers merge into the shadows until the patrol has passed and then re-emerge to resume business and socialising.
Northern suburbs residents tend to visit friends by car, but the scale of the problem can be seen when a couple of dozen cars, besides the exempted traffic, pass in both directions along a major arterial road in these suburbs in a 20-minute stretch near midnight. It is unlikely they are all essential workers exempted from the curfew for the sole purpose of driving to and from work.
Police have been trying persuasion. National police spokesperson Assistant Commissioner Paul Nyathi raised concern over the issue and called on the public to adhere to all health regulations in place to curb the spread of Covid-19.
“We are equally concerned about this, particularly in high density suburbs where a lot of issues which include people operating shebeens, people moving around while defying the curfew order and people drinking beer in bars,” he said.
“People are ignoring safety measures put in place by the Government, people are taking the issue of Covid-19 for granted, people are disregarding these regulations just for leisure. Everyone is at risk. These regulations were put in place by the Government for their safety.
“We urge all stakeholders to come on board and take heed of health and safety messages and if we do that the Government can manage the situation of Covid-19. But as long as people are complacent and want to be forced to comply, then we are going nowhere.”
Most recently, Home Affairs and Cultural Heritage Minister Kazembe Kazembe made a call to the public to adhere to the laid-down health measures aimed at preventing the spread of the pandemic.
“We appeal to the general public to observe the lockdown regulations. It is for their own good . This is no longer an issue for the police alone . It’s about saving our own lives . We all have to act responsibly. We need to curb the spread of this virus.
“Covid-19 is real and we have lost prominent people in the last few days . I don’t know how else we are suppose to realise that this pandemic is real and we need to act now. Whilst the police are expected to do their job, let’s all take this pandemic seriously. We urge the public to report any suspected cases of collusion between the police and those that are breaking the law.”
But few listen.
In Kuwadzana Extension on Heroes Day eve, it was business as usual with most of the streets filled with people and vendors who were selling their goods around 7pm. Most of the people there were neither wearing face masks nor practising social distance.
By this time most of the accidental curfew breakers, the returning workers, were home meaning these were those who were now out to have fun.
It was the same at the popular White House shopping centre in Kuwadzana, a few metres from the Bulawayo highway were revellers were braaing and drinking beer while some were vendors selling fish.
Illegal money changers could also be seen soliciting for customers while some of the hardware shops were still operating.
The same was witnessed at Glenview 1 and 3 and Glenorah A, popularly known as Spaceman Shopping Centre, where people were busy conducting their business.
At the popular Mapuranga area in Machipisa, it was business as usual around 9pm with vendors selling their goods. Unauthorised commuter omnibuses plying the Machipisa-Chitungwiza route were also loading and offloading passengers.
Passengers were not sanitised as they boarded the kombis, nor were they asked to put on masks. This is common with the pirate kombis on all routes at all hours, while Zupco conductors usually insist on masks and squirt sanitiser on the hands of boarding passengers. But Zupco does not run night services and buses and Zupco kombis return to depots after delivering their last batch of commuting workers.
One of the vendors, who refused to be named, said their customers are only available after 6pm since most of them would be at work.
“We cannot help it. We are aware that we are supposed to be indoors by now, but our customers are only available after 6pm after finishing their work. We are then forced to be out here at this hour.
“Police officers always patrol on this area and whenever we see them, we run away and hide our things and we will be back as soon as they go.
It was a hive of activity at Chigovanyika shopping centre in St Mary’s, Chitungwiza, around 10pm where vendors could be seen selling various wares.
The whole shopping centre was packed with people, and again as is common with curfew breakers, the majority were without face masks and were not practising social distance.
Vendors at Chigovanyika said they are aware of the curfew order but they only make a sale during the night, hence disregarding the order.
This night activity is in contrast to the daytime vending at shopping centres, where even vendors are at least wearing masks and space themselves out, and where shoppers are almost all masked, partly because the formal sector shops won’t let them otherwise and partly because patrolling police can actually see most people.