Court ruling a small relief for bus operators

A court order forcing government to pay about R300-million towards its outstanding bus subsidy payments was only an interim solution, the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union (Satawu) said on Thursday.

“We’re happy with it as an interim measure, but to be honest we need a permanent solution,” said Satawu’s policy research officer Jane Barrett.

Barrett was speaking outside the Pretoria High Court after it ruled that the Gauteng transport department had until noon on Friday to pay about R300-million to the South African Bus Operators Association (Saboa).

This amount was for subsidies for November 2008. The application for payments for December, January, February and March would be heard next Wednesday.

The full amount outstanding to Saboa in Gauteng is about R1,2-billion.

Barrett said the ruling would bring some relief to bus operators and workers. It was hoped that over the next few days a permanent solution would be reached.

“We will keep up the pressure, we are certainly not going to relax. Between now and Wednesday there should be a political solution so government sorts out the problem once and for all,” said Barrett.

‘Treasury must pay up’
Although the application was brought against the transport department by Saboa, Barrett said it was Treasury that was withholding payments to the department.

“The problem lies fairly and squarely with Treasury. The Treasury is withholding the funds from the department of transport. As far as we’re concerned the Treasury must pay up,” she said.

Saboa’s executive manager Eric Cornelius said if government did not pay, it would be in contempt of court.

“It’s a great pity that one needed a court order to force government to honour its contractual obligations.”

He said the ruling would not bring lasting relief to operators as the money would simply go towards paying working costs for last November.

Meanwhile, the department of transport has said it had activated all avenues to ensure that the full amount is paid.

Asked if the department would meet the noon deadline, spokesperson Collen Msibi said: “As a department we respect the court decision. Obviously we will study the decision and solicit advice from our lawyers.”

He said government regarded the bus service as very important for commuters.

“It is a matter that we are going to give urgent attention to,” he said.

He said over the past year the department had been operating 15% above its expenditure budget and the response from the Treasury “wasn’t that positive”.

“We’ve had to raise the issue with the Presidency so that there can be an intervention at that level,” he said.

Treasury spokesperson Lindani Mbunyuza said it was currently working with the transport department to rectify the situation and denied that it was withholding funds.

She said in last year’s medium-term budget R154,5-million had been allocated for bus subsidies.

“It is not that Treasury is withholding funds, it is that transport has not budgeted for bus subsidies,” she said.

Beauty Mabuka, the provincial chairperson of the Gauteng Commuters Council, said the matter indicated yet again that commuters were not well catered for by government.

“The commuter element is always being put on the back seat. She said commuters were happy with the ruling, but only “for now”.

“We are hoping and praying that the political leaders come to a situation where they join ideas and join endeavours in making sure the commuters ... the mobility of the country is not withheld.”

Outside the court a small group of Satawu members gathered to voice their concerns over the outstanding payments and how it affected their livelihoods.

“Without transport there is no life here,” said Velaphi Mabongwane.

“If things don’t go the way we wish we will be back and we will go further,” he shouted to the crowd, possibly referring to calls for a national day of action.—Sapa

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