Daily Dispatch editorial: Transport bungle is unfathomable

FOR thousands of poor children in the Eastern Cape, the road to education is long and, at times, dangerous. The daily commute to school for many involves crossing hills, valleys and ravines or walking along stretches of road where they risk being hit by cars or falling victim to thugs.

It was then a major shock to learn that the provincial department of transport had failed to make use of all available funding options in order to safely transport poor pupils to school.

It emerged in parliament this week that the Eastern Cape and five other provinces had failed to apply for funding from the National Treasury to make up a shortfall in their 2017-18 scholar transport budgets.

In a written response to a question from the DA, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga said the national department was holding talks with those provinces involved on how to address the shortages in their respective budgets.

The six provinces have a collective shortfall of more than R600-million. Of that, R189million is needed to transport almost 30 000 deserving pupils to schools in the Eastern Cape.

In this province more than 100 000 children are eligible for scholar transport, however, due to financial constraints, only about 77 000 children are currently benefiting from state-funded transport. The remainder have been left to fend for themselves.

That the provincial government did not even apply to Treasury on behalf of these children beggars belief.

Barely two months ago, the Eastern Cape department of transport admitted it did not have sufficient funds to ferry the thousands of pupils who had been left out of the transport programme.

Addressing the transport portfolio committee in the Bhisho legislature at the time, Transport MEC Weziwe Tikana said the department’s grant for the current year had only increased by R10-million from the previous year, which was not nearly enough to meet all the needs.

What is particularly difficult to understand is why the department, if it already identified financial woes earlier in the year, then failed to apply for supplementary funding?

But then, this is not the first the time the province has come under fire for its management of scholar transport. In May, Premier Phumulo Masualle had to intervene when hundreds of pupils were stranded because taxi operators contracted to ferry them to school stayed away. Their grievances included the fact that they had not had a fee increase since 2013 and were unable to operate at a profit.

In the same month Business Day newspaper reported that the Department of Basic Education had underspent its transport budget by more than R600-million in the third quarter of the 2016-17 financial year, with the Eastern Cape being one of the provinces that had spent the least.

At the end of the day, it is not bureaucrats who are negatively impacted by these bungles, but children who pay a hefty price for the incompetence of administrators.

The buck cannot be allowed to pass back and forth in this case. Transport has a responsibility to these children and must be called to account for failing on their behalf.