No easy choices

2014-05-15 00:00

THIS week, the country woke up to shocking images of a bakkie used to transport children to and from school, submerged in sludge in a dam near Mooi River. The bakkie was overloaded with school children when it went under.

Preliminary reports revealed that about 30 pupils were travelling in the bakkie on Monday morning when its driver lost control due to suspected brake failure and went into the sludge dam.

Five pupils were killed and 25 were taken to Greytown Hospital to receive medical attention.

Those who were confirmed to have died were Phumlani Shelembe (Grade 8), Nokwazi Phungula (Grade 6), Lindokukhle Mayekiso and Amanda Khanyile (both Grade 1) and Sindiswa Khanyile (Grade 4).

These children, aged between six and 17, were on their way to Tauricus Primary School and Senzokuhle High School near Mooi River when the accident happened.

This is a tragedy indeed, but what is more tragic is that it is not the first time children have died in bakkies on their way to or from school, nor will it be the last time.

Almost every year, newspapers carry photographs of smiling young faces who are no more, their crying parents and the mangled wreckage that used to be their transport to school. In many instances, bakkies are involved.

It is common knowledge that the bakkies are not safe and should not be allowed to transport pupils. The operators tend to pack pupils on top of each other like packets of potatoes and these vehicles usually have no seat belts, drastically reducing the chances of survival in an accident. The owners of the bakkies tend to see the children as cash cows; the more children they can load up for a single trip, the more money they can make.

While the dangers that accompany the use of bakkies to transport children are blindingly obvious and despite the many children who have died on their way to school in these bakkies, the authorities have still not done anything to address this danger.

This is not because they are neglecting their duties; it’s primarily because of the multifaceted problem they are facing.

The news that the driver of the bakkie in Mooi River has been arrested and faces serious charges should be welcomed, as someone must be held accountable for this particular tragedy. But let’s not be fooled into thinking that the arrest or even a conviction will lead to sweeping changes within this transport sector anytime soon. The arrest is merely to quell the emotions and provide short-term answers, and no more.

The problem in KwaZulu-Natal is not a simple issue of “do not put your children in bakkies”, it runs much deeper.

Parents are desperate to give their children the best education their blood and sweat can buy, and that often means sending their children to schools that are far from their homes, necessitating transport by any available means.

KwaZulu-Natal is largely rural and sparsely populated. In some areas, there are no access roads and some roads are only accessible by bakkies.

And in many rural areas, there is no reliable public transport, so people rely on lifts, and even the bakkies are considered a luxury. No parent would ask that his or her six-year-old or 17-year-old stand on the side of the road asking for lifts to and from school.

So, while the shock and horror, and the questions that accompanied the news of this tragedy are justified, we should remember, a bakkie was probably not what the parents would have chosen as transport for their children had they been given a choice.

When the MEC for Transport, Community Safety and Liaison, Willies Mchunu, says parents should prioritise the safety of their children, I would argue that these parents and others have used every resource available to them to ensure their children’s safety.

These parents allow their children to be transported in bakkies, not because they are trying to save pennies, but compared to the alternative of not getting an education or being abducted from the side of the road while waiting for a lift, the bakkies seem like a luxury bus liner.

There can be no question that bakkies need to be phased out as a mode of transport for school children. This is not the sole responsibility of the parents. The departments of Transport and Education can and should help, too. They have the resources and the capacity to transport these children to and from school, and are already doing so in other parts of the province.

These departments could provide the transport, and the parents, I’m sure, would be more than willing to pay these departments whatever they are currently paying to the owners of the bakkies being used to transport their children.

• Thamsanqa Magubane is a reporter at The Witness.

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