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Sihle Manda, Lauren Rawlins and Leanne Jansen
Durban - There could soon be an end to children being taken to school on the back of bakkies, KwaZulu-Natal Transport Department MEC Willies Mchunu said on Tuesday.
Mchunu made the announcement after the fatal accident involving schoolchildren on Monday. Five pupils died in a horror crash when a bakkie loaded with 30 children plunged into a sludge dam on the D532 road between Mooi River and Greytown.
Mchunu said the government would look at introducing a policy that banned pupils from being transported on the back of bakkies.
This year, at least 83 children have been injured. Last year 110 children were injured and 25 killed, and in 2012 The Mercury reported on the deaths of 27 children as a result of crashes involving bakkies or school buses.
On Tuesday, Mchunu and KZN Education MEC Peggy Nkonyeni met the bereaved parents of Nokwazi Phungula, 12, Sindiswa Bhengu, 12, Amanda Khanyile, 7, Lindokuhle Mayekiso, 7, and Phumlani Shelembe, 18, to convey their condolences.
The pupils all attendesd the Senzokuhle Combined School in the Nyamvubu area in Rietflei, which falls under the Mpofana municipality.
Mchunu promised to conduct an immediate audit of schools in KZN to identify the pupils who depended on the use of bakkies, and to prioritise their access to the free pupil transport programme.
“If we don’t identify these areas now and put a stop to it, we will see such an accident happening again,” Mchunu said.
On Tuesday, the owner of the bakkie involved in the crash said he regretted buying it, describing it “a curse”.
The vehicle had been transporting the pupils since Easter.
Joseph Shelembe, who lost his son, Phumlani, 18, while his daughter, Pretty, was still in hospital, said: “I’m so hurt. I also lost a son, my daughter is fighting for her life. I bought this car thinking it would make life easier for the community,” he said. “It’s not even paid off. I had to sell cattle to buy it.”
He gave the car to his nephew to drive because he could not drive.
“He says he has code 14; well, I don’t know, because I’m uneducated,” he said.
The parents of the children are mostly farmworkers in the Nyavubu (Alsmore) farming area, between Mooi River and Greytown.
The Senzokuhle Combined School’s governing body chairman, Xolani Mthembu, said he hoped the Education Department would now respond to their “countless pleas” for pupils’ transport.
Sthembiso Phungula, Nokwazi’s father, said he was battling to sleep.
“I was still expecting so much from her,” he said.
Phungula said it was “numbing” that Nokwazi was the second child he had lost after a 3-month-old son died in 1998.
Thembi Khanyile, grandmother of Amanda, said she was in her Estcourt home when she received the news.
She said they were “relieved” that only one of her four grandchildren in the car died.
“It could have been worse. What can we do? You can’t question God’s will. You just have to accept the situation and ask Him for strength,” she said.
Three of her grandchildren, Sthabiso, 10, Senzo, 12, and Sne, 9, escaped with cuts and bruises.
Happiness Mayekiso, the mother of Lindokuhle, 7, was still inconsolable. Lindokuhle’s father, Michael, said he felt “numb”.
“Lindokuhle was like a brother to me. Being the only men in the house, he did everything I did,” Michael said.
The family’s three daughters, Nosindiso, 17, Nonkululeko, 14, and Ntombizodwa, 12, who were also in the vehicle, survived.
On Tuesday, Mchunu sent transport officials to Mpofana to assess how many more subsidised buses would be needed in the area.
“We already have scholar transport there, but we realise it is not enough,” he said.
During his tenure as education MEC, KZN Premier Senzo Mchunu suspended all public school trips in the wake of the death of 10 pupils who were going to Bergville when their taxi hit a cow before plunging into a river.
Schools were required to ask permission from the department before transporting pupils for farewells or sporting excursions. The suspension was lifted months later, once a comprehensive safety policy was put in place, which demanded that schools conduct a risk assessment before each trip.
On Tuesday, the premier said he was saddened by the latest fatalities.
He said the government’s strategy for pupils in rural areas was two-pronged - providing free transport and building schools closer to their homes.
KZN police spokesman Colonel Jay Naicker said the 24-year-old driver of the bakkie would appear in the Greytown Magistrate’s Court today on charges of murder, attempted murder and reckless and negligent driving.