THOUSANDS of school pupils in the Eastern Cape will be forced to walk to school next week after the Department of Education suspended scholar transport until the end of March.

The department transports more than 100 000 pupils from poorer schools in the province but due to the department’s financial constraints, service providers were notified their contracts had been terminated.

Pupils at farm schools were exempted from the decision.

This spells disaster for pupils in the province and comes just three weeks after the department revealed that pupils would start the academic year without books because irregularities had been detected in the province’s multi-million rand stationery tender.

The suspension of scholar transport comes as no surprise as the department, along with the Health Department, has a projected over-expenditure of R3.1 billion.

Yesterday, superintendentgeneral Modidima Mannya confirmed the suspension of scholar transport.

“We have run out of funds for scholar transport. We need R214 million to take us to the end of the financial year in March.

“We owe a lot to service providers, but I can’t tell you the exact amount. That is the situation we find ourselves in,” Mannya said.

He also said that out of R274m initially needed for scholar transport, R60m was raised from savings and would pay service providers.

“The accounting officer has approved an exemption. This applies to children of farm schools. If there is no exemption in respect of children of farm schools, it would mean their total inability to go to school.”

He blamed the mess on the mismanagement of the programme itself.

He said in some instances, pupils were transported to schools far away whereas there were institutions nearer to where they lived.

“People were not doing their work properly,” Mannya said.

The department’s action has drawn criticism from interest groups and opposition parties.

Ntsizakalo Ngalo, chairperson for scholar transport service providers said: “The way he (Mannya) does things is not right. The Legislature and ANC are not aware of this,” Ngalo said.

He said service providers who were forced to replace bakkies with buses would suffer the most.

“Our worry is not just us service providers, but parents who were not notified.”

UDM’s Max Mhlati blamed the fiasco on “looting” caused by varying the tender.

“They now want to reduce the overdraft. They want to pay the debts,” Mhlati said.

DA’s Edmund van Vuuren said the department’s action was a disservice to the poor.

“It is unfair what the department is doing to the pupils,” he said.

School principals and the Public Service Accountability Monitor (Psam) also decried the department’s decision.

The principal of Ezingcuka High School in Butterworth, Phumlani Ndzotyana, said the termination of scholar transport would disadvantage schools and pupils. “This is going to have a huge impact on the number of pupils attending and the timing is bad,” Ndzotyana said.

Jali High School principal Zihle Dimbaza said his Butterworth school would have to contend with late-comers.

“Late-comers will increase again now, something that we passed a long time ago because of scholar transport. But unfortunately, in the end our hands are tied,” he said.

Psam education researcher Zukiswa Kota said although it was difficult to determine the exact number of pupils who would be affected, a negative impact on scholar attendance was expected.

She said the suspension would be a blow to the Eastern Cape which was a province with the second highest number of pupils walking to school. — Additional reporting by Msindisi Fengu

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