MBABANE, 5 July (IRIN) - A hike in commuter fares this week - by as much two-thirds for some urban destinations - has highlighted the burden of high oil prices on the nation's poor, as well as the limitations of Swaziland's public transportation system.
"There is no one to look after the interests of ordinary travellers. Unemployment is going up and those of us who are lucky enough to have jobs do not get salary increments to match a 50 percent rise in taxi fares," complained Nhlanhla Dube, a carpenter at the Matsapha Industrial Estate, outside the central city of Manzini.
As if to illustrate Dube's point, an agreement was signed on Monday between the Swaziland Manufacturing and Allied Workers Union and the owners of the nation's garment factories freezing all salaries until May 2006 in a bid to preserve jobs in an industry beset by lower profits and rising foreign competition.
Maximum fares announced by the Ministry of Transport raise long-distance bus fares by one-third, short-haul inner-city bus fares by up to two-thirds, and local taxi fares by half. The new rates go into effect on 1 August.
Transport owners said the new fares were justified by repeated rises in the price of petrol, and the higher cost of maintaining vehicles.
"Commuters are suffering price shock because of a large single leap in fares. But the bus owners are united in blaming government for not gazetting new fares for so long - fares should be raised incrementally, not in great lumps every few years that disturb the public - and after long periods, when bus owners struggle with costs," said Willie Simelane, a bus driver.
New fares were last gazetted in 2001.
In a country made vulnerable by successive poor harvests, the world's worst rate of HIV infection, and concerns over the government's commitment to good governance, commuters who spoke to IRIN at the Manzini bus rank on Tuesday said the poor would suffer most from the new fares.
"The price of a new car has not risen 50 percent since 2001. In fact, for people who can afford cars it is cheaper, because the strong rand [the currency of neighbouring South Africa to which the Swazi economy is closely linked] has lowered the price of imported vehicles," noted accountant Charles Tsabedze.
Commuters also complained of a lack of transportation options in a country whose public transport system is entirely privately owned, with no municipal or national lines.
Dedicating Swaziland Railway's rehabilitated main east-west line this week, King Mswati III, the country's executive monarch, called for a national passenger train system.
Swaziland's rail system was designed to transport iron ore, and now hauls commodities like sugar and coal, as well as emergency food relief for the World Food Programme to help feed 250,000 people - a quarter of the population.
Roughly US $13 million of the refurbished east-west line's $18 million cost came from an Italian government loan. But commuters are unlikely to benefit: the line runs from the Matsapha Industrial Estate through sparsely populated rural lands, and does not connect with the capital, Mbabane, or Manzini or any other major provincial town.
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