DURBAN: KWAZULU-NATAL remains the province with the highest proportion of pupils who have to walk more than an hour to get to school, despite promises by the government to fast-track the provision of scholar transport.
For most pupils in rural areas such as Ladysmith, getting to school every morning remains a daunting task as they have to walk more than five kilometres, and usually on an empty stomach.
Others rely on bakkies and minibus taxis, and this year alone more than 10 pupils in the province have died and at least 90 others have been injured using these modes of transport.
Equal Education spokesperson Mila Kakaza said part of the reason some pupils who qualified for government transport were not getting it was that they had been incorrectly classified by the Department of Basic Education (DBE). Some pupils were classified as attending schools of “choice” rather than schools nearest to where they lived, and so the department did not consider them as qualifying for government transport.
“Such learners would not be contained within a DBE assessment of the need for scholar transport. We have been calling for access to safe and adequate scholar transport in KZN since 2014, after pupils in the Nquthu area raised it as a serious barrier to accessing education,” he said.
Kakaza said teachers and principals complained of having to teach pupils who were hungry and exhausted after their long walk to school.
“As a result, learners struggle to concentrate or stay awake in class. They attribute the high incidence of late-coming, absenteeism and learners dropping out of school to the lack of scholar transport.”
He said a lack of transport also led to poor school attendance on days of heavy rains or lightning storms, particularly during the summer rainfall season.
“Walking long distances also comes with safety risks; learners who walk long distances to school are also vulnerable to theft and sexual violence,” Kakaza said.
Lungile Makawula, a Grade 8 pupil at Ladysmith’s Ingula High, has to walk about 12km to school every morning from her home in Besters.
She was fortunate that last week she was among 975 children from the area who were given bicycles by the local Eskom plant in Ingula, to make the journey to school more bearable.
Until Tuesday Makawula had to get up at 4am to do the house chores, including feeding the four family dogs and cleaning the home she lives in with her 59-year-old gogo, Mavis Khumalo.
She prepared for school while a pot of mealie porridge simmered on the fire and on days she was late she would grab a few slices of bread, if they had had money to buy it the day before, to munch on the 1 hour 45 minute-walk to school.
Before leaving her home daily, she would warmly hug her granny - the only parent she has ever known.
Her parents died while she was an infant. First, her mother died a month after Makawula was born, then her father died before she could even walk 14 years ago.
The winding, deserted gravel road, which cuts through hills and valleys, can be dangerous for children who walk alone, so they walk in groups.
The sandy road is often filled with dust and Makawula said that caused headaches that made it difficult for her to concentrate in class.
“This one time I coughed and sneezed so badly, I thought I was dying, before a friend offered me a glass of water,” she recalled. She said by the time she arrived at school she was often tired and hungry. Still, she said she was grateful that she had teachers who were patient with the pupils who they knew came from far-flung areas.
Despite the challenges, Lungisile’s dream of becoming a nurse remains strong and getting a bicycle to ride to school has made her more determined.
“With this gift, no dream is impossible to achieve. I am actually riding my way to success. There will be no late-coming to school from now on,” she said with a giggle.
Unfortunately her peer Andiswa Mazibuko, 16, did not get a bicycle even though she qualified for one. The Grade 10 pupil, who also goes to Ingula, said it took her close to two hours to walk from her home in Burford. “I am heartbroken I could not get a bicycle. I was told I would benefit in the next roll-out but I am not convinced. Fortune comes once in a lifetime,” she said.
KZN Department of Education spokesperson Sihle Mlotshwa said the government had not been able to provide transport to all the affected schools because of a shortage of funds.
“We are doing everything possible to attend to the needs of our learners,” he said.
“As for learners dropping out because of a lack of learner transport, in the absence of empirical evidence to back that claim, we won’t be in a position to comment.”