Transporting the future
Each year, dozens of the nation’s young learners are lost on our roads, while travelling to school via unsafe, informal transport services. The long-awaited National Learner Transport Policy aims to remedy this.
Johannesburg, Wednesday March 27, 1985. Almost exactly 30 years ago, South Africa experienced what some regard as the second-worst bus accident in the country’s history. Forty-two high-school learners from Hoërskool Vorentoe drowned when the municipal double-decker bus they were travelling in inexplicably left the road and plunged into the Westdene Dam.
SA History Online states that the driver, who survived and was acquitted, blacked out when crossing the dam. The website westdene1985.co.za – dedicated to the memory of the disaster – offers the opinion that, as the regular bus driver and with five children of his own, malicious intent on the driver’s part was very hard to believe. An account, by one of the survivors, notes that the bus was travelling much faster than usual, though the vehicle’s tachograph confirmed it was not over the speed limit … To this day, nobody knows exactly what happened.
The event was declared a national disaster by the government of the time.
Today, though, one has to ask if similar incidents would trigger the same reaction. In recent times, there have certainly been more fatal accidents involving school children than should have occurred … usually involving overloaded minibus taxis and open bakkies which, in many instances, are the learners’ only means of transport to and from school.
These stories make the news – and that’s normally where it stops. The question is raised: Why has formal scholar transport not been prioritised?
“The Southern African Bus Operators Association (Saboa) has been pushing for a national scholar transport policy for the last 20 years,” says the Association’s executive manager, Eric Cornelius. “The Association is happy to note that the draft document was eventually published for comment last November.” (Comments closed in early December, 2014.)
The National Learner Transport Policy, developed by the Department of Transport (DoT) and the Department of Basic Education, acknowledges that the transportation of learners to schools has always been a challenge facing the South African Government.
“This policy recognises the need to bring a uniform approach to the transportation of learners and the fulfilment of the constitutional mandate of the department to provide a safe and efficient transport system,” it states.
The primary objectives of the policy are to provide a uniform approach, norms and standards, promote coordination and cooperation among stakeholders, and a framework for monitoring and evaluation of learner transport services.
“Learner transport will be provided on the basis of a number of guiding principles, including: operational safety and efficiency, broad-based access, equity and redress, operational sustainability and multi-modal integration,” the draft continues.
“Scholar transport has always been provincially based, where each province decides on the rules of the transport tenders and how to manage them,” explains Cornelius. “Not all provinces have contracts with operators for formal scholar transport services. There are a few in Gauteng, Western Cape, Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, North West and Limpopo – I would imagine there are currently in the region of 3 500 buses in total,” he continues.
The policy states that only registered operators with approved modes of transport may be contracted for the provision of learner transport. The duration of learner transport contracts will be seven years as contemplated in the National Land Transport Act, no. 05 of 2009, and may vary from short to long term depending on the merit of the services.
“A standardised measure of remuneration for subsidised learner transport shall be based on total kilometres travelled. Factors such as road conditions and travel distances shall determine the cost of a service,” the draft states. Funding will be through the fiscus by provincial treasuries’ allocations and “other streamlined funding mechanisms.”
In the long term, the DoT envisages that learner transport be integrated into the public transport system, as per the National Land Transport Act and the White Paper on Transport Policy. For now, though, the implementation of the National Learner Transport Policy aims for:
• Timeous delivery of service;
• A reduced rate of road accidents;
• A coordinated approach in relation to planning and implementation;
• Learner transport operators that adhere to road traffic regulations;
• Viable and sustainable operations;
• Uniformity of services and tariff structure;
• A coherent performance monitoring system.
“In Saboa’s view, passengers, whether adult or children – and there is a lot of emotion involved in the transportation of children – should be transported in vehicles that are properly designed for the purpose,” says Corneluis.
“Currently there are many informal arrangements between parents and ‘transport operators’. It’s purely a case of enforcing the law to make sure they are not allowed to continue to transport passengers in, or on, vehicles that are not properly designed and approved, or do not meet with the requirements for the transportation of passengers,” he adds.
Here’s hoping that the draft policy is enacted and enforced as a matter of urgency, and that the nation’s many learners lost on our roads will not have died in vain.