Pupil transport is vital to fully realising the right to basic education, as stipulated in the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa. In 2014, members of Equal Education (EE) in Nquthu, KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) raised long, dangerous walks to school as an obstacle to quality schooling. Pupils and educators identified that these contributed to lateness, absenteeism, tiredness and poor concentration. Furthermore, the lack of safe, reliable transport means that only around 5-10% of pupils attend school on rainy days. Pupils also face the threat of violence when walking to school, with girls at high risk for sexual violence and/or harassment. Since then, EE has been working to ensure that all qualifying pupils have access to transport by listening to their experiences, conducting research, mobilising, protesting and taking legal action supported by the Equal Education Law Centre (EELC). This has seen three schools in Nquthu receiving transport, with an additional 12 receiving buses and taxis in Nquthu in 2018 alone. Consistent campaigning also led to both the national Department of Transport (DoT) and provincial Department of Education (DoE) making provisions for proper transport. In 2017, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga committed to pressuring the National Treasury for a pupil transport grant. In 2022, EE’s recommendations for improvement were presented to the KZN Provincial Legislature’s Education Portfolio Committee. This forms part of a commitment to ensuring pupils in the province have access to safe and reliable transport guaranteeing access to quality and equal schooling experience.
Pupil transport is vital for realising the constitutional right to basic education. Although there are pupils throughout the country who must walk long distances to school, the situation is particularly severe in KwaZulu-Natal KZN, where some 500,000 pupils walk more than 30 minutes each way daily. Despite this, the KZN DoE planned to transport only 53% of qualifying pupils, the lowest in the country. In 2014, KZN pupils, teachers and principals began campaigning on the issue.
EE’s campaign led to investigations into this issue in KZN schools, litigation, marches and sending memorandum, submissions, and letters to the responsible government bodies. However, it was only after numerous efforts at correspondence and a march to the KZN DoE in Pietermaritzburg that the KZN DoE admitted that three schools in Nquthu qualified for transport, and only after months of efforts that the pupils received buses. EE also identified a further 12 schools in the area without access to pupil transport. As a result, EE released a statement demanding buses for these, an increase in the budget and a conditional grant to address the urgent pupil transport crisis in KZN schools.
Consistent advocacy by EE saw the National Pupil Transport Policy being published in 2015 by the National Department of Transport. In the EE analysis, submitted to the national Departments of Transport and of Basic Education, several concerns were highlighted, including the lack of clarity around planning, how different government departments would work together and budgeting. To ensure the government was addressing concerns over the lack of transport, a symbolic march from New Hanover to Pietermaritzburg in KZN (36.6km) was organised to demand proper implementation of the National Pupil Transport Policy. A memo was also handed over to the KZN MEC for Education demanding emergency relief for specific Nquthu schools, implementation of the National Pupil Transport Policy and more funds specifically for pupil transport (a conditional grant). The march took more than two days and was intended to symbolise the long walk to school that pupils in KZN and many others across South Africa endure.
Furthermore, in 2015 EE protested during the KZN ‘State of the province’ address to call attention to the planned decrease in the budget allocated to school transport and demand a conditional grant to implement a proper pupil transport policy. In the following years, EE made submissions to Parliament and to the Standing Committee on Appropriations on the rationale for this much-needed additional, ring-fenced funding. In response, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga stated that the department was looking into ring-fencing pupil transport.
Although the DBE’S commitment to engage with the National Treasury on a pupil transport grant was encouraging, the sustained lack of response from the KZN DoE and KZN DoT to EE’s demands, combined with the clear lack of cooperation between the two departments, led to a legal battle. In court, the KZN DoE promised to provide transport for the 12 Nquthu schools by 1 April 2018. The KZN DoE and KZN DoT also promised to report back to the court on several of our demands. In April 2018, buses and taxis arrived at these 12 Nquthu schools. However, the KZN DoE and KZN DoT failed to address the province-wide need for transportation and to meet the court-ordered deadlines to provide a provincial transport policy and an implementation plan.
Following this tireless activism, KZN DoT and KZN DoE finally developed a policy to address the need for safe, reliable, government-subsidised pupil transport throughout the province. These victories affirmed the power of school communities in forcing systemic improvements in the South African public education system. The fight for pupil transport across the country continues.
Our Community Organising Model
The campaign started with KZN members writing an open letter to the then-MEC for Education highlighting the plight of pupils. This provided urgency and ownership for the Nquthu school community to shape future advocacy. From 2014, EE’s school transport advocacy has been beautifully documented, with pictures of pickets outside the KZN DoE and court explaining what is wanted and why it is important. All materials were translated into iSiZulu language, making it accessible to community members, principals, parents and the Nquthu school community, and making them more likely to get involved. The key to the success was that it was led by those pupils who were directly affected. Schools also provided information on the impact on pupils and the dangers they faced. Teachers found it challenging to work with pupils who arrived up to two hours late, tired and unable to concentrate. The difference when transport is available is clear. Many teachers had faced similar challenges, so were happy to allow the campaign in schools after class.
Creating Community Campaigns
An important lesson was not to view this as an EE campaign, but rather as a community one to benefit future generations. EE seeks unity between parents, teachers and community members in realising common goals. The demands were clear, making effective advocacy and messaging a key success factor. By avoiding an overly technical approach, it becomes easier to keep the community and the stakeholders updated, allowing them to relay information and maintain momentum.