Published by The City Press on 9 October 2022
By Mcebisi Kunene (Junior Organiser), Jay-Dee Cyster (Equal Education Communications Officer) and Tebogo Tsesane (Equal Education Deputy General Secretary)
October is transport month, in which the department of transport will focus on raising awareness of the role of transport in the economy and society, and aim to further road safety initiatives.
This comes in the wake of the tragic accident near Pongola in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), which claimed 20 lives, pupils included, when a truck overtook another truck, colliding into an oncoming bakkie that was transporting school children.
This accident speaks to the plight of thousands of learners across the country who do not have access to learner transport and, instead, have to choose between either walking vast distances or alternative transport, which is often costly, unsafe and comprises overcrowded vehicles, to get to school. How then do we prevent or decrease the likelihood of these accidents taking place and claiming the lives of more children?
The provision of learner transport is an important component of the right to a basic education. The right concerns the ability to attend school as well as reliable and safe physical access to school. The right to an education includes the provision of learner transport because this is the means by which learners access school which, in turn, allows them to engage in learning.
LEARNER TRANSPORT CRISIS
Data from surveys conducted by Stats SA in 2020 and by Equal Education this year show that the learner transport crisis is much bigger in KwaZulu-Natal than in other provinces.
In 2021, the KZN Learner Transport policy was published. It clarifies the allocation of responsibilities to principals, and the KwaZulu-Natal departments of education and transport. However, it does not outline a long-term plan to overcome funding challenges facing the departments.
We call on these departments to create a long-term funding plan to ensure the learner transport policy is properly implemented. We are determined to see that the policy is not just lip service but that it serves learners in a manner that is sustainable and practical.
Earlier this year, Equal Education conducted a principal survey in seven schools in the Umzinyathi District Municipality. The results showed that many principals were not aware of the learner transport policy and their expected role in its implementation.
Only two of the seven principals were aware of the policy and none of them understood their role in the implementation of it. All seven principals reported overloaded buses and/or taxis and shared challenges in their schools, such as learners migrating to their schools to access much-needed learner transport and the lack of appropriate transport infrastructure to make learner transport possible.
This is disappointing. The KwaZulu-Natal department of education should have workshopped the policy with principals to ensure they were clear on the role they were expected to fulfil in its implementation.
In July 2022, Equal Education further conducted a learner survey with 11 learners from the same seven schools in the Umzinyathi District Municipality. The results showed that, of the 11 learners, three use the government-provided learner transport, but the remaining eight learners still walk to school. Additionally, five of the eight learners walk long distances, taking 30 minutes to two hours to reach their school.
It was further reported by the learners that three of the high schools share their learner transport with nearby primary schools, resulting in unsafe overloaded buses with an average of 90 learners on the bus per trip.
The 2020 National Household Travel Survey revealed:
- In KwaZulu-Natal, 1.9 million learners walk long distances to school on a daily basis.
- This, in relation to other provinces, is the highest proportion of such learners in South Africa.. In 2020, there were still a jaw-dropping 152 000 learners in KwaZulu-Natal walking for over one hour to school.
- In the province, 712 500 learners walk up to 30 minutes or longer to get to school.
Further, the education department reports that thousands of learners qualify for learner transport but are not able to be provided with it. In 2021, there were 117 000 learners on the department’s waiting list and, in 2022, 157 000.
The provincial treasury also needs to prioritise learner transport. In the 2021/22 financial year, the education department stated that it needed a budget of at least R950 million to cover the shortfall for qualifying learners who did not have access to learner transport and prevent overloading in the vehicles that were currently provided.
LACK OF FUNDS
However, the funds for scholar transport only increased by R2 million in KwaZulu-Natal in this financial year, from the R457 million allocated in 2021/22.
Since 2014, Equal Education’s efforts have led to the provision of government-subsidised transport to learners of 15 schools in Nquthu, as well as the publication and promulgation of the National Learner Transport Policy and the KZN Learner Transport Policy.
The greatest credit in the struggle for learner transport lies with our Equalisers (Equal Education learner members), who have remained resolute in their belief that no learner should have to take the long and often dangerous walk to school again.
Last month, Equalisers presented our findings and recommendations to the KwaZulu-Natal Provincial Legislature education portfolio committee. They include:
- The KwaZulu-Natal department of education train all relevant stakeholders, such as principals and school governing body members, so they are aware of the role they play in the implementation of the transport policy.
- The department consider the provision of non-motorised transport, such as bicycles, for learners to mitigate the overloading in buses and taxis; particularly for learners who live close to their schools.
- Expanding the role of the provincial department of transport in the implementation of the Learner Transport Policy. In addition to monitoring road infrastructure used by government-provided scholar transport, the transport department must ensure that infrastructure is well maintained. The department should invest more in public transport, particularly in rural areas.
- The budget for the Learner Transport Policy should be increased. The slight budget increase for the transport policy was insufficient.
In 2014 it would have been difficult to foresee the amount of work, time and sustained effort Equal Education’s scholar transport campaign would require.
The victories for learners in KwaZulu-Natal have been many but not nearly enough.
With 157 000 learners in the province still on the learner transport waiting list, it is imperative that the provincial education department seriously consider our recommendations to end the long walk to school for all qualifying learners.