Maverick Citizen

EDUCATION STRUGGLE

Pupils describe the long walk to school, amid fight for scholar transport in rural Eastern Cape

Pupils describe the long walk to school, amid fight for scholar transport in rural Eastern Cape
Members of the South African Human Rights Commission walk to school with pupils who do not have access to scholar transport, on 6 March 2024. The walk started in Mbizana village, near Middledrift in the Eastern Cape, and took them to Ntabenkonyana Secondary School, nearly 10km away. (Photo: Deon Ferreira)

A Grade 9 pupil from a small village in the Wild Coast region tells of the hardship she and other pupils must endure to get to school and back home every day, while politicians refuse to talk about it.

A 14-year-old girl from a rural village in the Eastern Cape has added her story to those of others in support of a legal application to compel the Eastern Cape transport department to provide them with scholar transport. They also want the education department to provide a catch-up plan for pupils who have been adversely affected by having to walk long distances to school.

The girl, known only as Lulamile, is in Grade 9 at Seaview Secondary School in Zithulele. In her affidavit to the court, she describes her struggle: “Every school day, my day starts early at 5am. I have to get ready quickly because I leave home around 6am. The road to school is not like the smooth streets in town. It is a tough, steep road with lots of curves and it is full of big rocks and tall grass.

“There are a few houses along the way, but they are far apart and not close to the road. I am always a little scared when I walk this road by myself, unless there are other learners walking as well.

“By the time I get to school at 8.30am, I have missed our school morning prayers and the first class of the day. I do not like missing my classes because I miss important stuff, and I have to work extra hard to catch up or ask my classmates for help.

“Sometimes I can use private transport to get to school, but it costs R350 a month, which is a lot of money that my parents cannot really afford. So I walk most of the time.

“After school it is another long journey to get back home. I leave school at 3.30pm and I get home at 6pm. The long distance that I must walk results in me getting home tired and without the energy to do my homework.

“Sometimes we walk in a big group of about 20 for safety, but we all have to wait for each other, and this sometimes makes me arrive home much later. When we are walking home, it can get dark and it can get a bit scary.

“Because of the long walk and rough road, our shoes wear out quickly and it is expensive to replace them. When it rains, our books get wet and damaged, and we lose our work. That is really bad for our learning and makes things even harder for us.

“To try to make things better, my parents found me accommodation near the school that they rented for R250 per month from March 2023. They also had to buy food and toiletries for me.

“My parents could not afford the rent and the money for food and toiletries. I had to go back home from June onwards. Since then I have been walking all the way to school. Receiving transport would allow me to do my homework on time and be able to study when I get home,” she said in her affidavit.

walk to school Eastern Cape

Shukuma Senior Secondary school pupil Thulani Mbube carries a fellow pupil across the Qebeni river from school in Bizana, Eastern Cape, on 31 January 2024. (Photo: Hoseya Jubase)

Lulamile is one of thousands of pupils who are not given scholar transport in the Eastern Cape because of funding constraints in the controversial programme. It was only this year, after many warnings by the Auditor-General and other watchdog bodies, that the transport department introduced a digital programme to implement better cost control, but scholar transport remains underfunded.

Since January, the province’s politicians have refused to allow two crucial debates on the topic. In the Nelson Mandela Bay metro, a motion that asked for political intervention in the plight of hundreds of children in peri-urban areas who have been left without scholar transport, was not allowed. It was dismissed as “politicking” and the ANC councillors indicated that the provincial government was dealing with the issue.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Through thick bush, up hills and across rivers – Eastern Cape learners’ long trek to school

In February, after additional funds had been pledged for scholar transport, another motion, brought by DA member of the provincial legislature Marshall von Buchenroder, was shut down even though it had been agreed that it would be heard. The legislature’s sittings in Bhisho are normally livestreamed, but this one was not.

The leader of the opposition, Bobby Stevenson, who has since retired, took up the issue with the Speaker’s office in a letter.

“Much to my surprise,” he wrote, “I was made aware that the session of 7 February was not livestreamed. Whatever the reasons are for not livestreaming yesterday’s sitting, I sincerely hope that the reasons are not nefarious. Not livestreaming our business means that our democracy is allowed to slowly erode, and it undermines our mission as an institution…

“When Von Buchenroder tried to raise a point of order, he was not unmuted. When I tried to point out that some of our members were [muted], I was simply ruled out of order and treated with the utmost disrespect.”

Stevenson said it was an “unconstitutional act” not to livestream the debate on scholar transport. “It is obvious in the run-up to the election that political temperatures will increase, and things can easily spin out of control,” he added. “I therefore believe it is important that maturity and reasonableness is shown on all sides of the House in order to preserve the dignity of the institution.”

Von Buchenroder later said the DA members still did not know why the debate had been shut down. “The ANC was quick to shut down any discussion on scholar transport last week during a plenary sitting of the provincial legislature. Not only did it block a matter of public importance, the virtual sitting was not even made public on various social media platforms.”

It is understood that the recording was made public after Stevenson’s letter.

The application by the Legal Resources Centre will be heard in the High Court in Makhanda on 2 May. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R35.

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