Maverick Citizen

SCHOLAR TRANSPORT CHAOS

‘Department of Transport painted itself into a corner’ says EC Treasury over taxi commuter crisis

‘Department of Transport painted itself into a corner’ says EC Treasury over taxi commuter crisis
Roads were blocked across the central part of the province on Thursday as taxi associations protested the non-payment of scholar transport money. (Photo: Supplied)

Learners, health workers, and patients bore the brunt of a taxi blockade in Buffalo City and other parts of the Central Eastern Cape on Thursday. Nurses were intimidated while clinics and hospitals had to close or run on skeleton staff. Meanwhile, after a long meeting, it is understood that the taxi organisations have ‘suspended’ their blockade but will also not transport learners until they are paid by the Eastern Cape Department of Transport. 

Patients and healthcare workers at 60 healthcare facilities in the Eastern Cape bore the brunt of a taxi strike in the central part of the Eastern Cape on Thursday as staff was forced to close doors and patients were intimidated.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Non-payment of scholar transport fees triggers huge taxi strike in Eastern Cape

“Healthcare workers could not get to work because of blocked roads, making clinics unable to open. This is while some sections of some hospitals had to operate with a skeleton staff,” Eastern Cape Health Department spokesperson MK Ndamase said.

Facilities in Buffalo City Metro were the most affected, with 54 clinics not opening.

The Mount Coke Community Health Centre (about 60 km from East London) also could not open. At the Cecilia Makiwane Hospital in East London, several units, including patient administration, outpatient departments, the laundry and maintenance departments, had to operate on a skeleton staff.

Theatres only performed emergency cases.

Workers at Ngcobo Community Health Centre were intimidated and illegally instructed to leave the facility withinin 30 minutes and the All Saints Gateway Clinic remained closed, Ndamase said.

MEC for Health Nomakhosazana Meth condemned the blocking of roads that lead to health facilities.

“People must not infringe on other people’s rights when they exercise their right to protest. Healthcare workers sometimes provide essential services that can mean life or death, so they can’t be prevented from getting to work.”

Ndamase said there were no reports of casualties or adverse outcomes caused by the roadblocks.

Strike suspension

After a long meeting that started at 4 pm on Thursday afternoon, the taxi organisations agreed to suspend the strike. In a notice distributed in communities, Gabs “Putin” Mtshala from Santaco Eastern Cape said they do not have money for petrol and will suspend the scholar transport routes until they are paid in full for January, February and March.

According to the notice, the Department of Transport has agreed to pay outstanding fees by 10 May. Mtshala said they would check if everybody had been paid before resuming their scholar transport routes.

The latest standoff is yet another chapter in the beleaguered scholar transport programme that has been limping from crisis to crisis in the past decade.

Transport promises unfulfilled

In 2014, the Eastern Cape government had promised that all deserving students would have scholar transport by 2019, but 10 years later, thousands are still walking long distances to school. The South African Human Rights Commission and the Legal Resources Centre are currently in court to obtain scholar transport for more learners.

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

A damning forensic report by the Eastern Cape Treasury that served before the provincial legislature’s committee on public accounts in February shows how the Department of Transport had ignored the advice from the provincial fiscus and continued with a scholar transport scheme that was as chaotic as it was unsustainable.

Primary school children walking to school, transport

Primary school children are walking kilometres daily to get to school and back as the scholar transport programme in the Eastern Cape is failing. (Photo: Hoseya Jubase)

Ironically, the Eastern Cape Department of Transport cited the threat of litigation and instability in this report as reasons why they were forced to continue with an unaffordable scheme to provide scholar transport.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Pupils describe the long walk to school, amid fight for scholar transport in rural Eastern Cape

Provincial Treasury said in their assessment of the programme that the Department of Transport had “painted itself into a corner”.

The fiscus had sounded warning after warning and highlighted the unsustainability of the scheme plagued by duplicate payments that were not recovered.

school transport

A damning forensic report has highlighted the mismanagement of the scholar transport scheme in the Eastern Cape, leaving many children, like these girls from Mbizana Village in iXesi (Middledrift) with no choice but to walk long distances to school. (Photo: Deon Ferreira)

Chaotic system

According to the report, the latest blow to the scheme was a decision in 2020/2021 that more learners could be accommodated in the scheme because of savings from the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown period. However, in the report, the Treasury noted that this was not budgeted correctly. The system was also flawed as taxi operators were paid per taxi and not per learner ferried, making some routes unaffordable. These contracts were also extended for an extra year.

This issue was flagged by the Auditor-General as long ago as 2014 and 2016 when auditors found that three children were ferried over 100 km to school in an otherwise empty taxi.

In this report, the Auditor-General stated: “The Bloekomlaan pickup point was the longest pickup point on the learner transport database, at 129 km return, allocated to three learners. However, this and several other pickup points were materially inaccurate in distance on one route. The total annual value of the overpayment on this one route was R1,408,718.” Bloekomlaan is near Humansdorp.

Problematic routes were later cancelled.

In 2014 the Auditor-General further warned that “the tariff and cost structure of the implemented learner transport scheme was not economical in all circumstances. This had a direct impact on the number of learners provided with learner transport. It cost as much as R347,239 and R366,544 each to transport two learners for the 2014 academic year”.

The report also revealed how the system was run with an Excel spreadsheet (there are about 125,000 learners in the system) and that this dataset was in the hands of a few individuals.

After bailouts and threats, the Department finally switched to a digital system to administer the scheme this year (2024)  after the province exco made it a condition of yet another bailout to ensure that the programme can continue.

Budget blown

In 2022/2023, the Department had overspent by R131-million on the scholar transport programme, which meant the department’s bank account went into overdraft by R63-million.

This was in August last year, and the Provincial Treasury then called for an explanation.

The Department of Transport then blamed the Department of Education’s inaccurate database and said they were constrained by “systemic challenges” and late submissions.

But this week, despite the new system being put in place, the Department of Transport said it will take “partial” responsibility for the latest snag in the system but also pointed out that the taxi operators had not all signed contracts and some had tax problems.

Unathi Binqose from the Department of Transport said that it is not a question of having run out of money but of technical difficulties. He has not yet issued a comment on the latest developments. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Dennis Bailey says:

    when will the voting public realise it gets what it votes for? Viva, ANC, Viva.

  • Sandy Strydom says:

    I’m confused, in the Western Cape all scholar transport is financed and organised by the provincial Department of Education, not by the provincial Department of Transport and Public Works. Some input regarding routes and other technical detail was only provided to the Western Cape Department of Education by the Western Cape Department of Transport and Public Works as part of an ongoing co operation assistance agreement

  • Elvis l Bixa says:

    Sophakama SSS eNqamakwe Nqancule Kwandaba Route was approved in 2022 for 20 learners but Only 8 learners are being transported in and the number of learners has increased to 43 and Lerner’s in on those villages are forced to drop out there distance between their homes and only high school in area is 68 km in return on the school data there are 150 qualify for being transported imbi kakhulu lanto abantwana bafuna ukufunda intlupeko ibavalela lomathuba kwakunye nokungakhathali kwalisebe lezuthutho kwaye kudala lixelelwa

  • Ben Harper says:

    Aren’t they reaping the rewards of the party they voted for over and over and over and over again?

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