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Government must ensure safe scholar transport as it is a right

Pretoria News
On Friday, April 21, a 22-seater minibus taxi carrying 29 people, mostly children, was involved in a collision with a truck. Most of the occupants, including 18 children, were killed in the crash.

The minibus was travelling on a road through Groblersdal, a town so nondescript that media reports described it as being “near Bronkhorstspruit”. Most of the dead were from villages even harder to pinpoint - Wolvenkop and Verena in Mpumalanga.

The children were daily crossing provincial boundaries and travelling nearly 40km in a single journey to attend Gauteng schools.

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An overloaded taxi carrying 33 children was recently stopped by traffic officers while en route to Galeshewe in Kimberley. The driver had two warrants for his arrest and was fined R1 500. Picture: Emile Hendricks

Committees have been established to handle funeral preparations and calls for greater road safety have been made.

These are second-rate responses for an executive, and are beside the point.

The point is that this is not the first accident involving pupils and will not be the last. Shortly before and after the Bronkhorstspruit collision, there were two collisions involving young pupils using shared transport in KwaZulu-Natal.

Daily, many pupils from townships and rural areas travel long distances to schools.

Many parents choose to have their children travelling these distances to attend better schools than their local ones even if they can only remotely afford this.

Within this context, one would imagine a system for safe, cheap, accessible and reliable public transport, at least for transporting pupils to schools.

There isn’t one.

The Johannesburg and Tshwane urban centres are anomalies in the national public transport environment. They are replete with pedestrians and serviced by municipal bus services and passenger rail systems, whereas outlying areas are paralysed.

Even so, a closer look at the Gauteng city regions shows problems, including an ancient Metrorail system with a fleet of ageing trains (50 years or older), concerns over commuter safety and the increasingly unreliable Metrobus. Recent transport additions have been mixed, from relatively accessible Bus Rapid Transit systems (including Rea Vaya and A Re Yeng), to the elite Gautrain.

But public transport in the rest of the country is in a dismal state. A combination of neo-liberalism and corruption in the 2000s saw Durban’s munipal bus system being privatised and the buyer being repeatedly bailed out by the local authority, leaving commuters with nothing.

Continued apartheid-era planning in the City of Cape Town meant that municipal bus routes were extended first along the Atlantic Seaboard, before going to the Cape Flats.

Outside of urban centres, regular public transport does not exist. Informal transport services, including bakkies, but mostly minibuses, have come to fill the void and demand has not subsided.

Minibuses are responsible for transporting approximately 68% of the South African population, yet are almost entirely self-regulated. They also operate on a profit-oriented basis, under pressure to meet daily targets. Those drivers who work on a commission (as opposed to wage) basis are under more pressure and sometimes squeeze in as many trips and passengers as possible.

In rural areas, even minibuses are scarce and “Malumes” (bakkie operators) address the needs of commuters. These bakkies are similarly unregulated, profit-driven and sometimes unsafe. Like minibuses, they are used regularly by children to go to school.

National government recognises the problem, stating in the National Learner Transport Policy, that the lack of access to transport has been “compounded by numerous factors, ranging from road traffic accidents, the use of unproclaimed light delivery vehicles, bad road conditions, unroadworthy vehicles and overloading”.

The National Development Plan requires the renewal of passenger rail services, improved road services and substantial investment to ensure reliable and affordable public transport.

Little has been done.

Even if we place the overhaul of a general public transport system on the back-burner (as seems to be the case), it is unacceptable to adopt the same attitude for transport needs of pupils in the current legal and policy setting.

Pupils have a legal right to transport to get to school, and this right forms part of their broader right to basic education. The right to basic education and so the right to school transport is “immediately realisable”. This means the state cannot simply say it does not have money to address the problem, or that it has more important things to do.

At the very least, the state must plan to achieve school transport for every pupil who requires it, and must consistently work in terms of that plan.

On a more practical level, it is problematic to make schooling compulsory (as it is), and then not rectify even the most hazardous obstacles facing pupils.

Under law, it is the combined responsibility of national and provincial governments to address school transport, with provinces bearing the brunt of implementation.

Although provinces have endeavoured to provide school transport (to varying degrees), there is a general consensus that even this niche area has not escaped the public transportation crisis.

The Bronkhorstspruit collision is the most grim manifestation of this.

Beyond the 18 pupils who died in Gauteng on their way to school two weeks ago, in 2013, it was estimated that 20% of pupils in Gauteng use minibuses, a figure which is higher than the national average of 13%.

Beyond our boundaries, the majority of pupils must find their own ways to school. Household finances generally mean that this will include a combination of walking or taking a minibus, whether safe or not.

In the cases of pupils with disabilities, many are forced to board at school hostels - the only means of surmounting the transportation obstacle.

The current system has failed due to its fragmentation, a lack of funding and bad planning.

In some provinces, corruption has also played a part.

The solution is not simple, particularly in the light of racist spatial planning of the old days, and the neo-liberalism of these days. But these are stumbling blocks that other national administrations have managed to overcome.

In Brazil, for example, pupils travel less than 20 minutes to get to school every day. This is directly attributable to the 78% increase in the number of state-funded buses between 2001 and 2011, and despite the baggage of extensive periods of European colonialism and capitalist dictatorships. The government saw fit to increase social spending, making transport one of the key pillars of its administration.

In South Africa’s case, even if the executive chooses not to focus on public transport for now, it is at least constitutionally obliged to spend time and money on developing an accountable, safe and subsidised school transport network.

Pamela Choga is research fellow at Section27 while Bhavna Ramji is an attorney at Section27, working on education cases. Section27 is a public interest law centre that seeks to achieve substantive equality and social justice in South Africa

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