A free school bus service has hastily been provided for the children of Hillside in the Karoo town of Beaufort West after a protest brought traffic to a standstill on the N1 on Thursday.
ANC Central Karoo region secretary Windy Plaatjies told News24 that when school started this week, pupils as young as seven had discovered that the Western Cape department of education’s bus service was no longer running.
He put this down to a misreading of distance on Google Maps by planners who had decided that the children only had to travel 5km to get to school.
He said the planners also did not take into account the rapid expansion of the suburb which the affected pupils hailed from, or the school that the parents of isiXhosa-speaking pupils wanted their children to go to.
He said the department had claimed that the pupils only lived 5km from a school and so did not need a bus.
Plaatjies said the closest schools for many of the children were Afrikaans-medium ones, so the pupils had to travel to the other side of the busy town, negotiating bridges, underpasses – and this week, 42°C heat – to get to schools offering isiXhosa.
“Some have already been robbed,” said Plaatjies of the children who have to carry their large school bags to and fro.
The N1 in the area was closed for almost four hours on Thursday. It services a steady stream of transnational commuter and container traffic moving between Johannesburg, Cape Town and the Eastern Cape.
Plaatjies said they were pleased that a temporary bus service had been provided, with no charge to the pupils.
He understands that procurement processes would follow for a permanent service.
Department spokesperson Bronagh Hammond said they had decided to reinstate the transport scheme in Beaufort West as an interim arrangement, while they audited the number of pupils and required distances to schools.
“The scheme provides for the transport of learners who reside 5km or more from their nearest school. We have been informed that there has been an extension to the ‘Graceland’ community – which may just fall outside of 5km,” she said.
“The WCED is currently obtaining information as to how many learners live in this new area, and whether they will now qualify for the scheme. We had never received an application from this area previously.”
The route has been reinstated for all pupils falling outside the 5km radius.
The department spent R100,241,000 in 2007 on its scholar transport, and this has increased to a budget of R400,570,000 for the 2018/19 budget year and R422,201,000 for the 2019/20 year.
The WCED transports 61,000 pupils to and from school.
“This is a major portion of our budget, but it is a commitment that we are determined to continue. Unfortunately, budget constraints would not permit us to decrease the 5km-distance threshold.”