South Africa: Great Karoo Scholar Buses Back After Parents Protest

Parent power in the Karoo town of Beaufort West has led to the restoration of a bus service to take learners to and from schools in the area.

The Western Cape Education Department (WCED) has reinstated scholar transport in the Great Karoo region, following protest action by Beaufort West parents on 16 January.

The angry and frustrated parents took to the N1 and staged a blockade, barricading the road with rocks and burnt tyres, in protest against the WCED's decision to cancel scholar transport for the pupils of Mandlenkosi High School and HM Dlikidla Primary School.

According to the schools' governing bodies and parents, the department informed them in October 2019 that scholar transport would be cancelled. This after the WCED claimed to have determined that pupils stayed within a 5km radius to the schools.

The parents and school governing bodies are disputing this, saying the department is using outdated data as most pupils stay in Graceland and Hillside, townships that are about 12-15km away.

The parents braved a scorching 42℃ Beaufort West sun on the second day of school, after they learnt that pupils had walked to school on the opening day.

A day after the protest on Friday, 17 January, two buses arrived in these townships to pick up pupils.

"We owe our gratitude to the parents who braved the hot weather and blockaded the N1 to protest against the cancellation of scholar transport. If it wasn't for them, our children would still be walking to and from the school," says HM Dlikidla Primary School principal, Nontsikelelo Mbese.

Mandlenkosi High School principal, Mluleki Mangqungqa, agrees with his counterpart, saying, "We thank the parents for protesting. Now the children have transport."

Old data

Mangqungqa adds that there was no need for the cancellation of transport in the first place. "The department is using old data. Graceland and Hillside have grown over the years," he says.

Mangqungqa says it is important for the children in the Karoo to have scholar transport because the region is one of the hottest areas in the country, and pupils as young as seven, who have no knowledge of road signs, cross the N1 and a bridge where they might be robbed.

"Temperatures can reach 50℃ here. These children can faint on their way home. [And] they are forced to cross the N1 as there is no other way to get here," he says.

Mangqungqa says the cancellation was going to have a negative impact on the school's results. "The children were not going to attend. And that was going to lead to dropouts. We are grateful that the transport is back," he says.

A parent, Nomzamo Luzipho, says after they heard that their children would not be transported to and from the school, they set up a meeting, after which they agreed to protest.

"We had a meeting on the day before schools were going to be opened. We agreed to wait and see if this was true. The opening came and our children were not fetched as there was no transport. It was then that we decided to embark on a protest. We could not sit down and let our children be uneducated like us," she says.

Community leader, Mcebisi Kilani, is also not happy with the department's handling of the matter. "I am not fully happy. If the department had engaged with us none of this was going to happen. We tried to have a meeting with them after they informed us in October that the transport was going to be cancelled. They communicated with us through emails. We wanted to meet them face to face and tell them that these places that pupils are coming from keep expanding," he says.

Mandlenkosi High School SGB member Stanley Nkanyezi says the department made a mistake by not counting the distance from Graceland to Mandlenkosi. "They calculated the distance from Hillside to HM Dlikidla, which is the shortest."

Temporary arrangement

Nkanyezi says although the transport has been reinstated, there is still concern because it is a temporary arrangement until a tender is awarded. "We were told that this is not permanent. But we were assured that the children will have transport until the tender is given to someone. Our concern is that the drivers might not take this seriously for now. We want the tender to be awarded so we can monitor the transportation," he says.

A spokesperson for the WCED, Bronagh Hammond, confirms that the buses are an interim arrangement until the department completes an investigation into how many pupils need transport. She says it is only after the parents' protest action that the department learnt that Graceland township has grown, and distances to schools considerably exceed their initially determined 5km.

Hammond says they are obtaining information about how many people are living in the affected areas and whether they qualify for the scheme. She says they have not received an application from this area.

The ANC's Central Karoo regional secretary, Windy Plaatjies, says they are happy that the department is conducting an investigation. "They will see that those children are staying very far from the schools. Once that is done there would be no excuse for not providing transport," says Plaatjies.

He says they have established a task team that is working with the district to ensure that permanent transport is provided.

Plaatjies says it is lack of engagement that resulted in scholar transport being cancelled. "They do not want to meet with the community. If that was happening, they were going to know about the expansion of Graceland. They only know the first part of the township. They do not know about the new area. That is why this is happening," he says.

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