With just two years left before Nokuthemba Sikhakhane finishes school, there is little chance she will ever enjoy a 15-minute journey to school — unless a court intervenes.
Right now, it takes the grade 10 pupil at Ngwane High School in Vumankala village in Nquthu, northern KwaZulu-Natal, more than an hour to walk to school. By car, the journey takes 15 minutes.
Ngwane is on a list of 12 Nquthu schools that form part of an application by lobby group Equal Education in the high court in Pietermaritzburg. The group wants the provincial education and transport departments to provide transport to pupils who travel long distances to school.
The schools in question are: Langazela Senior Secondary School, Maceba Secondary School, Mgazi Senior Secondary School, Ubongumenzi High School, Hlinzeka Primary School, Hlubi High School, Magogo Primary School, Manzolwandle Primary School, Ngwane High School, Hlalele Primary School, Nkunyana Primary School and Ukuphumula Secondary School.
The organisation has been campaigning for transport for pupils in the area for about two years.
The Mail & Guardian reported two weeks ago on the plight of Nokuthemba, who has to wake up before dawn to prepare for school and often leaves home while it’s still dark to make it to school on time.
Answering court papers of KwaZulu-Natal education department head Enock Vusumuzi Nzama criticise Equal Education for “deliberately” publicising the application. He says it will give “false hope among thousands of vulnerable children”.
Nzama says the need for transport extends beyond the 12 schools referred to in Equal Education’s application. He paints a picture of pupils across the province who walk kilometres to get to school.
He adds that a grade 5 pupil drowned while crossing a river in February and that two scholars were murdered on their way to school while walking through a dense forest.
He acknowledges that most pupils have been victims of assault, murder and rape because of a lack of transport, but says the department cannot afford transport for all pupils.
“The unfortunate reality is that it is simply impossible for the department to provide learner transport to all learners in the province who require such transport. This can only be achieved if and when the fiscus can afford it. Under the present economic conditions, I cannot reasonably foresee this happening in the next few years,” says Nzama in the court papers.
He said the department had been made aware as far back as 2012 that 116 schools needed transport. A study had shown that pupils from 181 schools throughout the province risked their lives by having to wade through rivers and dams to reach their schools, he said.
The situation was so bad that in 2014 one school obtained a 0% pass in grade 12, and this was largely attributed to pupils not being able to go to school regularly because of the lack of transport.
Because of budget constraints, the department was unable to provide transport even in these situations.
But Nzama said there had been instances in which “compelling facts” had forced the department to step in, despite “budget constraints”, and provide transport. He mentioned a pilot project where boats are used to ferry children to school. He said the project was benefiting pupils from six schools and cost R7-million.
The department provides transport to 47 747 pupils in 320 schools and, because the need for transport continues to grow, it estimates that there are about 54 000 who still require the service.
In its application, Equal Education said the department had acknowledged that seven of the 12 schools on the Nquthu list qualify for transport but that it could not provide it because of insufficient funds.
Nzama says the lobby group is insinuating that it does not want to provide transport to the pupils. “The decision of the department, properly construed, simply means that it would provide learner transport to these schools when its budget allows it to do so … That decision does not in law constitute a refusal to provide learner transport to the seven schools.”
The lobby group wants the court to direct the department to say why five schools on the list have been refused transport on claims that they are “schools of choice” and not the closest school. One of the schools is Hlinzeka Primary School, which is the only primary school in Vumankala. It is next to Ngwane High School, which is also on the list.
But Nzama said the five schools did not appear on the department’s database as schools of need. He said he had instructed officials from the Umzinyathi district to collect relevant information on the five schools.
“If it transpires that any of one or more of these schools are indeed schools in need, then these schools will be included in the list of schools requiring learner transport in an amended list for the next financial year,” he said.
Inclusion on the list does not entitle schools to receive unconditional transport. “These schools will be treated according to their relative merit, competing with the 337 other schools in the province that are still awaiting learner transport,” he said.
The department blames the country’s bleak financial situation for its failure to provide transport to all the pupils who need it. The economy has affected the province’s fiscus and the department can’t make the “constitutionally recognised right of access to education in all its facets a reality on account of this”.
The department has taken a swipe at Equal Education for taking it to court. Nzama says the group “has peculiar knowledge of the budgetary constraints on the province”.
The department wants the high court to dismiss the case with costs.