Thousands of learners in the Eastern Cape continue to walk long distances each day to attend school; sometimes for more than 12 kilometres and for over four hours, through bushes, next to busy roads, and over flooded streams. Their routes are often unsafe, with armed threats and thefts a common occurrence, making it a feat to get an education.
Walking for so far to attend school means learners have less time to study at home. Some have to miss final exams and repeat grades. Sihle*, a learner at Mizamo High School, reaches home at 20:00 and has no time left to study before getting up at 4:30 to walk to school in the morning. He has had to repeat a grade and keeps getting lower marks. Many learners cannot attend school on rainy days and have to stop going to school altogether during the winter months, when it is too dark to walk to and from school. Pumza*, also from Mizamo, walks two hours each way. She had to miss her final exam last year, when a dam flooded the path, making it impossible to cross. Lini* has also failed a grade. She was recently threatened with a knife by two men, who took her money, phone, and books. She has now stopped attending school in the winter because it is too dangerous when it is dark.
Some children prefer not to risk taking their textbooks to school, in case these are stolen, along with their money and phones. Anna*, of Solomon Mahlangu Senior Secondary School, has had her watch and school bag stolen on the way to school and has been approached and threatened several times. Out of precaution and fear of losing her books again, she now leaves them at home. School shoes are not off limits for thieves; when Zama* of Mizamo High School tried to stop some thieves from stealing his school shoes and his school bag, they hit him and threatened to kill him.
Female learners are also afraid of being raped on the journey. Walking to school one day, Siya*, a learner at Mizamo HS, was the unfortunate witness of an event no child should ever experience. Three men approached a little girl walking in front of her and asked her for money and her cell phone. Since the little girl had neither, they proceeded to rape her and threatened to kill her. Afraid for her own life, Siya ran away, leaving the other girl alone. “My heart felt so heavy because I couldn’t help her,” she says, “It killed me inside.” Afterwards, Siya was afraid she would suffer the same fate and thought about dropping out. If it had not been for her sick mother and difficult situation at home, and her desire to improve her life, she might have. Three men attempted to rape Yolisa*, of Solomon Mahlangu HS, but she screamed enough to make them run away. Yolisa walks for four hours each day to attend school and is now afraid to keep up her education.
The current scholar transport programme is not implemented equitably. Thousands of applications from learners every year receive no response from the National Department of Basic Education. Meanwhile, even the policy recommended by the Minister of Basic Education, the Department, the MEC for Education and the Eastern Cape Department of Education, provides transport only to learners who live more than 5 kilometres from school, denying transport to anyone below that cut-off or who can access public transport or a closer school. The Department has transported the same number of learners (56 000) annually for the last four years. And yet, in that same period, the scholar transport budget has more than doubled; from R210 million in 2011 to R430 million in 2015.
This policy continues to fail thousands of children. The proposed policy does not consider other challenges learners face that factor into their journey; including weather and safety. It does not give families and learners the opportunity to choose between different programmes at schools, limiting them to the closest school. Moreover, though public transportation may be available at some locations, it is often a costly additional burden on already limited family resources.
Mr Bathini Dyantyi, who represents the Tripartite Steering Committee of three schools, and more than 150 learners, represented by the Legal Resources Centre, are approaching the Grahamstown High Court on Thursday, 11 June 2015, seeking an order that will give them scholar transport. If they are successful, it will also set in motion a process that will provide transport for thousands of learners who qualify for scholar transport but don’t receive it. They seek transportation within 30 days, a comprehensive database of qualifying learners within 30 days, and transport for all of those children within 90 days.
As reasons for their failure to provide scholar transport, the government cites the lack of infrastructure in rural areas, poor coordination between different departments, corruption, ineffective compensation, poor monitoring of the system and limited funding. The government has asked for the application to be dismissed or, at least, postponed in order to give them an opportunity “to get their house in order” and finalise a scholar transport policy.
But while we wait for the government to get their house in order, thousands of learners continue to face serious dangers on the way to school and are deprived of their constitutional right to education. These learners do not have the means to provide transport for themselves – it is the government’s responsibility to do so.
By: Patricia Alejandro
*Not their real names
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