An end in sight for KwaZulu Natal learners’ long walk to school

An opinion editorial by Shaazia Ebrahim, Communications Consultant for ICJ’s Africa Programme.

Nomfundo Ngobese (25) was used to waking up at 4am to walk the 35km from her home in Nquthu, northern KwaZulu Natal (KZN) to school. In the blistering heat and the freezing cold, crossing rivers and sometimes dodging rain and lightning, Ngobese, was like many South African school learners who walked for hours to get to and from school each day.

“We had to wake up past 4 so that at past 5 we can go to school. In winters when we had to go to school, it was dark. We didn’t feel safe… We didn’t even realise the difficulties our smaller siblings were facing. It’s a thing that we just got used to,” Ngobese said.

While learners all over South Africa walk for hours every day to get to school and back home, KZN has the greatest need for scholar transport. According to the 2016 General Household Survey done by Statistics South Africa, some 483 633 learners in KZN walk more than half an hour in one direction to school each day.

But the end of the battle for learners with similar experiences to Ngobese could be in sight.

On October 23, Ngobese joined other Equal Education (EE) post-school youth organisers in picketing outside the Pietermaritzburg High Court. EE, represented by the Equal Education Law Centre (EELC), had sued the KZN Department of Education (DoE) to court to force the government into releasing the provincial scholar transport policy, which should have been available in December 2018.

They emerged victorious when government committed to releasing its Scholar Transport Policy for public comment by 31 January next year. Should the KZN DoE fail to comply, it will have to answer to the courts. The release of this policy is a critical step in ensuring that more learners will be able to have access to school transportation.

EE has been working to achieve free and safe scholar transport in Nquthu since 2014, after Equalisers told EE about the difficulties they faced with scholar transport. Learners highlighted the challenges they faced walking very far distances in extreme heat and in thunderstorms, and crossing rivers and mountains, at great risk of violent crime including sexual assault. Many learners said they felt tired and hungry after the long walk, and could not concentrate properly in class or perform well at school.

“I was once an Equaliser myself and I once walked to school every morning and afternoon,” Palisa Motloung (21) said. “We were never sure what’s going to happen on those routes. I remember this one time when I was walking with my friend, and then we passed a bush and there were men there talking. We couldn’t tell if they were talking on this side or that side of the fence because it was dark. It was very scary, we literally had to run. It was quite an experience and I don’t wish any child should go through that,” Motloung said.

After local visits to schools in Nquthu in 2014 and 2015, EE wrote to the KZN Department of Transport (DoT) and KZN DoE about these hardships learners were facing, and requested information about how they were providing scholar transport in the province. Governments’ replies were unsatisfactory, with the DoE responding that it found that only one of the 12 schools EE discussed qualified for scholar transport.

After long back and forth with government, who provided scholar transport in dribs and drabs, EE found that there was still a desperate need for scholar transport. Government officials claimed that five of the 12 schools did not qualify for scholar transport because learners were not attending the schools closest to their homes. They conceded that seven of the 12 schools did qualify for scholar transport, but said there was no money to provide it. EE took the matter to court.

This is not the first time that a provincial department of education has sued in South Africa for a failure to provide transport for learners. In 2015 the Judge Plasket of the Eastern Cape High Court held in a similar case that “The right to education is meaningless without … transport to and from school at state expense”.

The initial case was set to be heard at the Pietermaritzburg High Court. But before the hearing began, the lawyers representing EE and the lawyers representing the KZN government entered into negotiations with the KZN DoE and KZN DoT made certain promises. The order granted by the Pietermaritzburg High Court stated that the KZN DoE promised to provide scholar transport to learners in the 12 Nquthu schools by 1 April 2018.

While this was a momentous victory for EE, as part of ongoing court processes, the organisation filed a response to the KZN DoE report to the court, recognising the important steps that it had taken, but also noting significant gaps that remain.

The EE urged the KZN DoE in June last year to provide clear timelines for the finalisation of its scholar transport policy. This is a crucial step to clarify which learners qualify for government-subsidised scholar transport, how the KZN DoE and the KZN DoT will work together to provide scholar transport, and how learners’ safety will be ensured.

This report has been delayed for over a year now, but if the decision of the Court is to be implemented, it will be released in January next year.

After coaxing from South African civil society, including EE, The National Learner Transport Policy was finally published in October 2015. The policy contains important scholar transport guidelines and principles that provinces should adhere to. However, while this policy has been finalised, it has yet to be adopted.

The government’s failure to provide learners with transport is a violation of the right to basic education which is protected under the South African Constitution and international law.  The International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights, which South Africa ratified makes clear that education must be free for all learners at a primary school level and should progressively be made free for all learners at all levels.

Free education includes not only the absence of fees but also all other costs include free, reliable and safe transport. This means learners have a right to access their schools safely, and on time, so that they can use their energy to concentrate in class. For many learners in South Africa this is impossible without government funded transport.

“Most of the time, [schoolchildren] wake up very early and they get to school very hungry and tired. This affects their school percentage, the pass rate of the school also gets affected because of the long kilometers that children have to walk to school,” Sanele Zulu (22) said.

“I walked to school but I didn’t even know it was a wrong thing to do until Equal Education came and opened our minds. Even our parents didn’t know it was wrong, they thought that because in the olden days they walked long distances, so we must get used to it. But when EE came to our rural village, something went off in our eyes and we saw things in a different way,” Ngobese said.

Reflecting on their own experiences during school Ngobese, Motloung, and Zulu, continue to use their voices for learners who walk long distances to go to school. Equal Education, with the legal assistance of EELC, continues to advocate for the rights of learners in KwaZulu-Natal and all over South Africa.

Even though the persistent delays in the development and implementation of government policies to facilitate free, safe transport to and from schools is a cause for concern, learner’s faith in the judicial system and rights-based advocacy should be a source of optimism about the future of constitutional democracy in South Africa.

This op-ed was originally published in the Mail & Guardian.