Dmitri Holtzman of the Equal Education Law Centre says national policy regarding pupil transport needs to be finalised.
Pupils who have to walk more than 6km to school and back qualify for state-provided transport, according to KwaZulu-Natal education department policy. Yet hundreds of children in rural Nquthu walk double that distance to get an education.
“I’m walking 14km, so it’s 28km return,” said Sphilele Thusini, a grade 11 pupil at Mangeni Secondary School.
“It affects my classes because … I can’t concentrate on my school work because I’m tired.”
The Mail & Guardian met Thusini while visiting Nquthu in central KwaZulu-Natal to shoot a documentary on transport for pupils. It emerged that many children walk for more than three hours, and climb mountains, cross rivers and face the threat of crime just to get to school.
Thusini said there were “dangerous snakes, and sometimes we are facing lightning … we are crossing a river there; it’s a dangerous river – we can even die because of it”.
If they don’t time their journey carefully, children risk arriving at school late and being locked out of the classroom by a teacher or being beaten as punishment.
“When I am late, I can miss the early classes and the teachers punish me … it is not easy for me to walk because there are mountains and that’s why I’m always late,” he said.
The province’s education department states in its 2013 policy on public school transport that “learners who travel a return distance of six kilometres to and from school are eligible for learner transport”.
It adds: “However, due to financial constraints preference is given to learners that travel the longest distance to the nearest grade-appropriate school.”
But this policy is not implemented for many Nquthu pupils. The nongovernmental organisation Equal Education is campaigning for this to change.
Its one-person office in Nquthu, headed by facilitator Sandile Ndlovu, is gathering information about pupils’ experiences travelling to school. With the help of its partner organisation, the Equal Education Law Centre, the NGO has begun communicating with the KwaZulu-Natal education department about the shortfall in transport for pupils.
Ndlovu said his focus was on making pupils aware of their right to learn in conducive conditions. This included informing them about the transport policy.
“So many pupils don’t know they have rights and the teachers … many of them are not helpful. You can show them the Bill of Rights and they will just say: ‘This is a piece of paper’ and ‘It does not concern me,'” he told the M&G.
The law centre’s executive director, Dmitri Holtzman, said he did not know exactly how many South African pupils need transport “since these figures have not been published and, as far as I can tell, they have not in fact been audited by the department of transport or the department of basic education”.
“What we do know is that the General Household Survey, conducted by Statistics South Africa in 2013, noted that 8.7 million pupils across the country walk to school.” He said most of these children were in KwaZulu-Natal (two million), followed by the Eastern Cape (1.6-million).
“Of these pupils in these provinces, over 200 000 pupils, or 10%, in KwaZulu-Natal walk for more than an hour to get to school, while in the Eastern Cape approximately 109 000 pupils walk for more than an hour to get to school,” said Holtzman.
“Against these figures and in the same year, only 15 600 pupils in KwaZulu-Natal were being provided with transport. This is according to statements by the minister of transport in Parliament.”
But provincial education spokesperson Isaac Luthuli, said a departmental survey indicated that “71 000 learners are in need of learner transport”. He did not say when this survey was conducted.
“An audit is being conducted for 2015. The number of pupils currently benefitting from pupils transport is 23 206.”
Holtzman said one of the main causes for the shortfall in pupil transport was “a severe lack of budgeting”.
He said that KwaZulu-Natal spent only R125-million on transport for pupils in the 2013-2014 financial year, despite it being the province with the “greatest need”, and that “only the Northern Cape and the Free State spent less on scholar transport”.
Luthuli conceded that there is “a need for the top up in the budget in order to accommodate the learners in the shortfall”.
Gauteng finance MEC Mandla Nkomfe said at the tabling of the province’s 2013-2014 provincial budget that the education department planned to extend transport to 57 000 pupils in that financial year and that R1.1-billion had been set aside for this purpose.
Law centre attorneys and Equal Education activists visited Nquthu at the end of last year and again at the beginning of this year “to investigate the extent and effects of the lack of scholar transport for pupils there”, Holtzman said.
He said Equal Education will be “sending formal letters to the provincial education and transport MECs, highlighting the evident shortcomings in the provision of scholar transport in KwaZulu-Natal and requesting that they urgently indicate their plan to address this.”