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Fears that pupils will be left stranded

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Private pupil transport operators have threatened to either withdraw their services or hike up their prices after suffering major financial losses as a result of the lockdown.

Picture: Matthews Baloyi/African News Agency (ANA) Archives

WHILE schools in the Northern Cape are due to reopen on Monday, June 8 for grades 7 and 12, there is a concern that many children who rely on private pupil transport might be left stranded.

This is after private pupil transport operators have threatened to either withdraw their services or hike up their prices after suffering major financial losses as a result of the lockdown.

Some parents said on Friday that this was a problem that the Department of Education had failed to take into consideration when planning for the reopening of schools in the Province.

Some pupil transport operators have threatened to hike their current prices from around R550 a month to up to R900 when schools reopen.

Parents will have to choose between paying the increased costs or allow their children to walk to school.

Operators meanwhile said that they anticipated “chaos” when schools reopen in a week’s time as there will be limited transport available for pupils. 

“We are forced to limit the number of people in our vehicles and as a result transport for pupils will also be limited,” one operator said on Friday. “We have suffered severe financial losses as a result of the limit on the number of passengers we can carry and although we have tried to engage with the government to meet us halfway, our pleas have fallen on deaf ears.”

The transporters added that pupils were likely to be left stranded, irrespective of whether they operated or not. “We are obliged to take less people on each trip, so some will have to wait in the cold.”

Some operators indicated that they were facing the threat of their vehicles being repossessed after they were unable to make their loan repayments for April and May. “The car companies are breathing down our necks while the banks will not grant us a payment holiday.”

One private operator said he had been in the pupil transport industry for the past 12 years and had never been so close to quitting it.

He said that he purchased a new Quantum taxi last year after parents complained that he was ferrying their children in a “skorokoro”. He now fears that he will soon be served with court papers for the repossession of his vehicle after he missed two payments of R15 000 each over the lockdown period.

“We are on our own, the government does not care. Some of the parents refused to pay us after the lockdown was announced, stating that we had not provided the services.

“They forgot that no one anticipated this situation and that we still have bills to pay. The least the government could have done was to ensure that we received a holiday payment until the economy improves,” he said.

According to the operator, most parents are not willing to pay extra for transport when schools reopen.

“Only a few paid during the lockdown. Others did not even take our calls – but it is fine as we will only service those who paid.

“We will wait for the chaos to happen as children will be stranded with their parents at taxi stops. Those taxis, however, will also only be able to carry a limited number of commuters.

“It is all up to the parents. If parents don’t make arrangements now, they stand the risk of being left in the cold as our hands will be tied.

Another operator admitted that the chances were good that prices would double as they were struggling to make ends meet.

“One of the options we came up with as private operators is to charge each child R100 a day to and from school. This will operate like a metered taxi, where you pay as you go, with no guarantee that you will get a lift.

“We have been trying to stick to the regulations by upgrading our services and operating as registered businesses but no one has taken any notice. We are really in a sad condition,” he said.

A parent, who has already been approached by her child’s transport operator, said she was panicking. “I have been notified that the school has been sanitised but the problem I have now is with transport to and from school.

“The operator is not willing to transport only five children to school at a time. He has already told me it will be R50 per trip. If my two children have to use public transport, it will cost R30 per child daily. It is already a struggle to find transport so I have to decide fast.

“I also have to consider their safety and whether it will be safe for them to use public transport,” said the worried parent.

Service providers for the government said they too felt that they had been left in the cold as the department had only promised to provide them with sanitisers to disinfect their vehicles.

One operator said they had lost faith in the government as it did not understand the real situation that operators found themselves in.

“Our vehicles do not run on sanitisers. The lawmakers are sitting in their offices and do not know what is happening on the ground and what we are going through. They act as if they are not aware that we have to make three trips because of the limited number of passengers allowed in vehicles, while the money we receive covers only one trip.

“The circumstances have changed over the lockdown period but they want our contracts to remain the same.”

During a press conference on Thursday regarding the reopening of schools, the Northern Cape MEC for Education, Mac Jack, said a total of 1 967 Grade 12s and 1 562 Grade 7s were dependent on pupil transport provided by the department.

“To ensure the health and safety of pupils making use of pupil transport, the department will issue sanitisers to operators to disinfect their vehicles on a daily basis before transporting pupils,” he said.

Jack added that a total of 349 vehicles transporting Grade 7 and Grade 12 pupils would benefit from this programme.

Nothing, however, was stated about pupils relying on private transport to and from school.