The wheels come off scholar transport as government fails to pay more than R25m

2019-08-14 01:01

Free State pupils travel in unsafe buses, whose unpaid owners are at risk of losing them, as provincial government migrates programme funds between departments.

Their bus had few wheel nuts and as a result its rims and tyres were strapped together with a safety belt.

The bus ferries children of the poor to and from a school in the Free State.

They are part of 7 691 pupils transported by contractors as part of the scholar transport programme in the province.

The contractors were struggling to service their buses because government had allegedly failed to pay them an amount totalling R25 251 233.99 for the past three months.

The troubles started after a decision was taken by the provincial government, led by Premier Sisi Ntombela, to move scholar transport back to the provincial education department from April.

The programme was migrated in 2015 from the education department to the department of police, roads and transport.

Limpopo provincial government was also discussing plans to migrate scholar transport from education to a different department, Kenny Mathivha, spokesperson for Premier Stan Mathabatha, confirmed to City Press last week.

“Yes there are discussions on the reconfigurations of certain government functions that include scholar transport. This is to ensure quality and efficient service delivery. The premier has initiated a discussion and a technical team will be working on such movement if it will happen. At the moment the status quo remains,” Mathivha said.

In the Free State, City Press learnt from sources that the programme collapsed after the province failed to pay more than R25 million to owners of 401 buses.

A source within one of the four major banks showed City Press a letter written by a department official, asking banks not to repossess buses owned by contractors, promising that their money would be paid last month.

A parent, who asked not to be named, said pupils were being transported in buses with no wheel nuts and ropes were being used to strap tyres on rims.

“Our pupils are crammed into overloaded buses. Buses are poorly maintained because their owners didn’t get their money.”

A bus owner said their buses were getting repossessed.

“Some owners suffer from stress-related ailments because of this and children from farms are forced to hitchhike to go to schools that are about 40km away from their homes because their schools have been closed owing to their few numbers,” said the bus owner.

Hillary Mophethe, spokesperson for Free State transport, would not comment on whether the service had collapsed on not, but confirmed that it would be moved back to the education department next month.

“The executive council took a resolution to migrate the function back to education, based on the direct impact the transportation of pupils has on the schools’ performance and the concomitant accountability that the schools administration has to take for the arrival and departure of pupils,” Mophethe said.

She confirmed that contractors were not paid for three months because the budget was with the department of education.

“Due to migration back to the department of education, the contracts were extended on month-to-month from April 1 to September 30 to prepare for the administration process in the department of education,” Mophethe said.

Her department used the services of the same contractors as those used by the education department.

“They are in a process to register the operators on the Basic Accounting System to be able to pay them. Both departments had to sign a protocol agreement for the department of police, roads and transport to pay operators and claim back from education. All these agreements had to be done in terms of financial frameworks of Treasury to avoid audit queries in future,” she said.

The responsibility to pay contractors, Mophethe said, was with the department of education but because there was an agreement it was agreed that her department would pay until September.

Mophethe said pupils were transported during the three months period when contractors were not paid, but would not comment on allegations that buses used were not roadworthy.

Both departments had explained the process that delayed payments to contractors, she said, adding that payments were made from July 19.

Joseph Mogorosi, chairperson of the contractors, said that the R25 million reflected in their bank account on Wednesday, while an amount of R8 million was paid last week.

Mogorosi said he would not rule out the possibility that there could be owners who were still owed by the department.

He said late payments had affected many families, even those of drivers because of lack of income.

“Pupils were also affected because vehicles could not be maintained and we had to protest to get our money,” he said.

Mophethe said all contractors were paid.

“The department will be collecting the July invoices this week,” she said.

Other provinces

In the Western Cape, 61 672 pupils were being transported, according to education department spokesperson Bronagh Hammond.

Hammond said their budget increased significantly this year.

“In 2007, R100 241 000 was spent on pupil transport. This figure has increased by more than 400%. In the 2018/19 year, R400 570 000 was budgeted for this programme and R422 201 000 was budgeted in 2019/20.” 

Unathi Binqose, spokesperson for Eastern Cape transport, said 81 043 pupils were being transported and R570 449 000 has been allocated for the 2019/20 financial year.

There was an increase in the number of pupils and budget from previous financial years.

“About 30 084 pupils qualify for scholar transport in terms of the policy, but are not transported owing to budgetary constraints,” Binqose said. 

Sam Makondo, spokesperson for Limpopo education, said 37 357 pupils were being transported and R306 577 000 had been allocated for the 2019/20 financial year. The budget increased from R290 402 000 in 2018/19.

“Scholar transport is provided and budgeted for on a basis of needs analysis from all education districts in the province. Budget is always aligned to the needs analysis, therefore the cost is never used as grounds for non-provision of scholar transport,” he said. 

Geoffrey van der Merwe, spokesperson for Northern Cape education, said 24 845 pupils were being transported and R156 million had been set aside for the 2019/20 financial year.

“The number of pupils has decreased by 800 from 25 645, and the budget has increased by R9 million. This is as a result of the department’s monitoring processes that found that in certain instances some pupils who were transported did not qualify for transport.

“The department has an obligation to transport pupils to the nearest suitable schools,” Van der Merwe said.

He said 4 456 pupils who qualified for transport were not being transported because of contracts awarded last year, as well as a 31% tariff increase, absorbed the budget. As a result, service to these the affected pupils could not be provided as no provision was made for the tariff increase.


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January 19 2020