*Published by The Mercury
Sixteen-year-old Siphilele Thusini begins his walk to school at 5.30am. Mangeni High is 12km away from his home in Nquthu, in northern KwaZulu-Natal. He keeps his hands in his pockets, attempting to keep warm against the early morning cold, one resolute step after the other across veld and over mountainous terrain.
The darkness is disturbed only by the headlights of the occasional passing car. By the end of the school week, Siphilele has walked 120km to realise his right to an education. His struggle to access scholar transport is one of many documented by Equal Education (EE) members and Equal Education Law Centre (EELC) since 2014.
It was members of EE based in Nquthu who identified a lack of transport as a serious barrier to education. Siphilele’s story is told in the newly released short film Long Walk to School, which traces EE’s scholar transport campaign, and reveals how he and other EE members were able to win government-subsidised buses for three Nquthu schools, including Mangeni High.
Lihle* is a pupil at Ngwane Secondary School. The challenges and dangers she faces are documented in an affidavit before the Pietermaritzburg High Court, in a bid by EE to secure government-subsidised buses for another 12 schools in Nquthu. She walks for 2.5 hours to get to school, crossing the Vamankala River.
The KZN departments of Education and Transport have refused to provide Ngwane Secondary with scholar transport, claiming it has no money. Since 2014, EE and EELC have listened to the testimonies of pupils, teachers, principals, parents, and members of school governing bodies. We have mobilised, protested, engaged with the provincial government at the political and bureaucratic level, and have made multiple submissions to Parliament.
Our members have secured hard-fought victories, including the adoption and publication of the National Learner Transport Policy by government in 2015, and last month finally winning a public commitment from the Basic Education Department to work with National Treasury to explore the introduction of a conditional grant to fund scholar transport.
We have, however, continued to demand the provision of government-subsidised buses to the 12 Nquthu schools. We are asking the court to review and set aside the decision of the KZN MECs and heads of education and transport departments to refuse scholar transport to seven of the 12 schools who qualify for it, on the basis that there is no money; and to refuse scholar transport to five of the 12 schools on the basis that these pupils are attending a school of choice and not of need.
We have continued to gather the experiences of these pupils that the provincial government has failed to provide with scholar transport, and we again returned to Nquthu earlier This year. At all of the schools we have visited, a substantial number of children walk over 3km to get to school. For some – including primary school children – the walk is up to 15km to get to school, and 15km to return home.
Children must wake up as early as 4am to complete their morning chores before beginning the long walk to school, up mountainsides and over hills, through dongas, bush
and rivers. The teachers we interviewed explained that pupils walking long distances find it difficult to concentrate in class, arrive fatigued and hungry – often arriving after 10am.
Pupils are also exposed to extreme weather – unyielding heat or beating rain. Girls and boys, are vulnerable to sexual harassment and sexual assault.
Like many other pupils, after enduring a 12km walk back home, Siphilele helps his mother with the chores and herd the goats with his brothers. His older sister lives at her school so she can study in the time she would have spent walking. These are not isolated cases. This is a systemic crisis. According to a 2013 Statistics SA publication, 2 million KwaZulu-Natal pupils walk to
When EE began engaging the KZN Education Department, it emerged that there was substantial confusion over who was responsible for scholar transport in the province and whether a provincial policy guiding the provision of scholar transport existed. This is why we are also asking the court to order the KZN departments of Education and Transport to report to it on:
● The status of the KZN Scholar Transport Policy (which for years has been referred to as a “draft policy”);
● The way in which officials from the provincial departments of Transport and Education will co-operate with each other in terms
of planning, providing, implementing, monitoring and evaluating
scholar transport in KZN;
● What alternative modes of transport are being considered
for scholar transport in KZN, and whether and by when these will be implemented;
● The plan of the provincial departments of Transport and Education to address the need for scholar transport in the 12 schools, and by when; and
● The plan of the provincial departments of Transport and Education to address the need for scholar transport in KZN, and by when.
EE’s Long Walk to School film also shares the experience of
Nompilo Zungu, who at 17, is the head of her household.
Nompilo is a pupil from Hlubi High School, one of the 12 Nquthu
schools to be denied government-subsidised scholar transport.
“All the time rural schools are being undermined. We are always
struggling, only to find that in town they have everything – transport, laboratories, libraries. They have
Nompilo left school not having had access to this essential component of the right to education.
The work of Equal Education and Equal Education Law Centre
is now to continue to fight to ensure that pupils such as Nompilo are no longer left stranded.