Western Cape government keeps lid on school bus audit

Transport tragedy: The mass funeral of the 14 Rheenendal Primary School pupils who were killed in bus crash near Knysna last year. (Esa Alexander, Gallo Images, Sunday Times)

Transport tragedy: The mass funeral of the 14 Rheenendal Primary School pupils who were killed in bus crash near Knysna last year. (Esa Alexander, Gallo Images, Sunday Times)

Civil society organisations are demanding the release of a confidential Western Cape education department report  on pupil transport in the province. This comes exactly a year after the Rheenendal bus accident that killed 14 pupils.

In expressing "serious concern" about pupil transport, the Save our Schools Campaign is joined by the South African Democratic Teachers' Union as well as non-governmental organisation Equal Education, among others.

A year ago, 14 pupils and their driver were killed after the bus taking them to Rheenendal Primary School plunged into a river outside Knysna. The 32-seater bus was carrying 57 learners when suspected brake failure caused it to roll down a hill into the river.

"Learner transport must be in a dodgy state if the report is being kept confidential," Save our Schools Campaign organiser Magnus de Jongh told the Mail & Guardian.

Max Ozinsky, ANC spokesperson for Parliament's standing committee on public accounts in the provincial legislature, said the report was presented to the committee earlier this year on condition that it remained confidential.

The report showed "that the department was negligent because it was not fulfilling the terms of its contracts with learner-transport service providers and was not checking its vehicles regularly," he said.

The negligence included not checking whether the number of seats in a vehicle matched the number of pupils the service provider was contracted to transport.
"[The department] was aware of this at least five months before the Rheenendal tragedy took place," Ozinsky said.

Samkelo Mqomboti, provincial secretary of the Congress of South African Students (Cosas), said: "Just from looking at the buses, you know it will be dangerous to get on them."

The state-contracted buses were a death trap and pupils were scared to use them, Mqomboti said. "But if there is no alternative transport, then what can they do?"

He said Cosas had received reports about buses with mechanical problems, including faulty brakes.

Department spokesperson Bronagh Casey said routine internal auditing reports were confidential. "In terms of national regulations, the reports have to be confidential to ensure candid communication between auditors and their clients."

But according to Ozinsky, "there is nothing in the report which identifies any staff members, so this reason does not hold".

It was "vital" that the public "know what the department should have done but did not do", he said. In not making the report public "[it] is trying to cover up its responsibility in this matter".

National policy states that pupils who live more than 5km from school and who do not have access to public transport are eligible for state-provided transport. Nearly 50 000 Western Cape pupils use the service.

"Rigorous" monitoring procedures
Casey said the department applied "rigorous" monitoring procedures and safety measures. This includes "a team of seven officials who check whether contractors are complying with the conditions of their contracts". They are supported by district officials who manage the transport scheme in their area.

A departmental investigation into the Rheenendal accident found that "certain terms and conditions of the service level agreement" between the department and JBS Transport "may not have been honoured". Following this, the department said it would evaluate the pupil-transport system and take action "where shortcomings in the monitoring and control of this system [are] identified".

A police investigation into the Rheenendal accident has been completed, but the parents of those killed have not yet received the closure they seek. Jerald Andrews, the attorney representing the parents, said they did not have access to police documents and so they did not yet know what caused the accident.

"But it is suspected that the bus was overcrowded and the brakes failed, causing it to plunge into the river."

The National Prosecuting Authority recently approved the parents' application for an inquest into the accident "so that [they] can know what the road conditions were like in the area, what the education department had done to monitor service providers and if anyone, including the provincial education and transport departments, can be held liable for the accident", Andrews said.

A wreath-laying ceremony was scheduled to be held at the accident site on Friday afternoon, followed by a memorial service at the school.

Victoria John

Victoria John

Victoria studied journalism, specialising in photojournalism, at Rhodes University from 2004 to 2007. After traveling around the US and a brief stint in the UK she did a year's internship at The Independent on Saturday in Durban. She then worked as a reporter for the South African Press Association for a year before joining the Mail & Guardian as an education reporter in August 2011. Read more from Victoria John

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