Risky road to school ends – for some

Small steps: Four schools’ fight for transport succeeded but thousands of schoolchildren in the Eastern Cape will still have to walk up to 30km a day to and from school to get an education. (Delwyn Verasamy, MG)

Small steps: Four schools’ fight for transport succeeded but thousands of schoolchildren in the Eastern Cape will still have to walk up to 30km a day to and from school to get an education. (Delwyn Verasamy, MG)

On July 20 Bathini Dyantyi got a phone call from the principal to say that after a five-year battle, his three children would finally get transport to school, starting the very next day.

“There was tears on me: I couldn’t believe it was really happening after the long journey we took to get this. It was tears of joy,” he told the Mail & Guardian this week from his home in Mdantsane, outside East London.

He waited to get home to share the news with his children.

“They couldn’t believe it.
I called the principal and opened the speaker phone.”

Dyantyi’s 18-year-old daughter, Nthombesizwe, said she and her 14-year-old twin brothers started screaming. “We ran out the house to tell people we were finally going to get transport.”

Nthombesizwe said she couldn’t sleep that night and woke early the next morning “to start checking for sure that the transport was there”.

At about 7am, an hour after she and her siblings would normally have set out on their 6km walk to school, a taxi arrived.

The Dyantyi siblings are three of 172 children at four schools who, as of last month, have been spared their usual one-and-a-half-hour walk to and from school after a judge forced the Eastern Cape education department to reconsider its refusal to provide transport to them.

Court action
In June the Legal Resources Centre filed court papers at the Eastern Cape High Court in Grahamstown on behalf of three schools from the Mdantsane area and one from the Fort Beaufort district.

The Mdantsane schools – Solomon Mahlangu Senior Secondary, Sakhisizwe Senior Secondary and Mzamo High – had applied to the province for transport, but were rejected. Applications by Masivuyiswe Junior Secondary were approved but failed to materialise.

The founding affidavit, which is in Dyantyi’s name in his capacity as chairperson of the tripartite steering committee that represents the Mdantsane schools, is accompanied by 20 affidavits from pupils and a sample of the more than 100 articles by Eastern Cape newspapers about the struggle for transport since 2011.

These and other documents stress that transport for schoolchildren is just one face of the mountain of maladministration that has contributed to the Eastern Cape earning the reputation of the worst province in the country.

The 172 pupils who got their first taste of transport two weeks ago are lucky. Tens of thousands more pupils in rural areas continue to walk up to 30km a day to get an education.

Dyantyi says in his affidavit the province’s transport department aims to transport only 65 000 pupils this year, which means about “30 000 learners qualifying for scholar transport won’t be assisted”.

Policy
According to one of the department’s policies, pupils who have to walk more than 5km to get to school qualify for transport assistance from the state. But the province’s policies “are not always reconcilable and a number of them appear to be drafts”, an education member of the executive committee, Mandla Makupula, admits in his opposing affidavit, adding “there are also significant deficiencies and uncertainties inherent in the policies themselves”.

Makupula also disputes the 30 000 figure saying the department does not, in fact, actually know how many pupils need transport, nor is there a “clear and constitutionally acceptable [transport] policy being put in place” upon which to establish which pupils deserve transport.

Because of this, along with corruption and tender disputes, even establishing a budget for pupil transport has been “extremely problematic”, Makupula says.

Dyantyi said even 300 children not getting the transport they have a right to “is a number too big”.

“But when you are talking more than 30 000 … that is another story.”

In his precedent-setting judgment, Judge Clive Plasket said the right to basic education is “meaningless” unless pupils had access to the transport they needed.

“[In] instances where [pupils’] access to schools is hindered by distance and an inability to afford the costs of transport, the state is obliged to provide transport to them in order to meet its obligations, in terms of … the Constitution, to pro­mote and fulfil the right to basic education.”

Meaningless
A Sakhisizwe pupil, Sivelele Qutywa, knew that a right to education was meaningless every time he walked to school in fear.

“I was coming back from school last year when I met these guys, I think there were six. They pointed a gun at my head and they took my bag and my cellphone,” said the matric pupil. “It was a Samsung. It was expensive. It was hard to lose my cellphone. I went to the police station and reported it but they didn’t do anything … These are the things I went through.”

He spoke of threats of muggings, beatings, rape and murder he and his peers feared on their route across rivers and through a graveyard.

He would walk to school with friends but “sometimes they didn’t go to school and I have to walk alone”.

“I was scared … I was thinking: ‘I don’t want to do this again.’ ”

He considered dropping out of school on many occasions.

But he persisted and last week his principal came into the classroom to say that taxis would be waiting for him and 12 other pupils to take them home after school.

More free time
“I was so excited … Now I get home, I do my school work in about an hour and then I can rest before ironing my brother’s uniforms or maybe doing some cooking,” said Sivelele.

Solomon Mahlangu’s principal, Zukile Kafile said the transport had already had a “very positive effect”.

“When it rains then you will only have a few coming to school. Now that has changed.

“I hope our pass rate will go up now. I really hope so. This process only started in the middle of the year. Imagine what might have happened if it had started at the beginning of the year?”

The department did not respond to the M&G at the time of going to print. It has until August 14 to report to the court on its progress in finalising its transport policy for schoolchildren.“In instances where [pupils’] access to schools is hindered by distance and an inability to afford the costs of transport, the state is obliged to provide transport to them”

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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