North West learners threatened by transport crisis

The North West provincial government is scrambling for funds to keep its learner transport scheme going.

About 31 000 pupils in the province’s rural communities rely on the scheme to get to and from school every day.

Funds allocated in the province’s budget for scholar transport in the current financial year have dried up and the provincial government executive last week announced it was “considering an urgent request” to provincial treasury for the R129-million it needs to sustain services until the end of March next year.

The scheme’s “balance is at zero”, Matshobe Mfoloe, spokesperson for the North West’s department of public works, roads and transport, told the Mail & Guardian this week. “This means there are no funds available to pay transport operators for the remainder of the financial year,” he said.

The national scholar transport policy adopted in 2009 makes providing transport to poor pupils the “ultimate responsibility” of the national department of transport.

The provincial executive also said in its announcement last week it would investigate how the budgeted allocation had been depleted five months before the end of the current financial year.

Mfoloe said he did not know how long the investigation would take, and the premier’s spokesperson, Lesiba Kgwele, said he would not comment on it either.

“Due to the sensitive nature of the investigation, the provincial government is not keen … to add further to the media statement it has issued regarding the matter,” Kgwele said.

Who else is involved
Kgwele had said in the statement the investigation would look into the “involvement” of officials of the public works, roads and transport department in the scholar transport, the criteria used to appoint the province’s 125 operators and disparities in payments of the operators.

The Democratic Alliance’s leader in the province Chris Hattingh told the M&G the scholar transport programme is already “chaotic because some operators have not been paid” in recent months.

Mfoloe confirmed that a number of transport operators had not been paid, some for one month, others for two. But he said pupils’ transportation would not be “interrupted at all” between now and the next financial year because the department would tap into its savings.

Hattingh welcomed the investigation but added a note of caution. “We’ve welcomed many investigations in the past, but they’ve never seen the light of day. Results do not get tabled in the legislature,” he said.

“To say ‘we’ll investigate’ simply means we’ll take a matter out of the public eye because it’s embarrassing for us,” he added.

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