Scholar transport deadlock goes to court

The Western Cape Education Department is accused of flouting regulations in awarding contracts after giving prospective bidders hardly any time to prepare their applications.

The South African National Small Bus Operators Council in the Western Cape has taken the province’s education department to court over what it calls the “unfair allocation” of scholar transport contracts. The council accuses the department of corruption, saying it flouted regulations in the way in which it extended contracts for scholar transport in the Cape Winelands region. Contractors were given short notice to submit their bids despite the government having ample time to amend the time frames owing to changes in the school calendar because of Covid-19.  

The alleged corruption started when scholar transport operators’ contracts in the Overberg and metro districts expired on 23 October. These contracts are divided among different districts and then handled by the respective district offices. 

A member of the council, Lisa Swanepoel, said the court case for an emergency interdict was specifically about the routes in the Cape Winelands. “One hundred and thirty-two routes in the Cape Winelands area were all set to expire at the end of the second quarter 2020. The date for the end of the second school quarter changed unexpectedly when the president announced the immediate closure of schools on 24 July. 

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“As a result, the department alleged that the contracts had terminated and they were unable to extend a contract which had already expired. The department advised [us] of this fact on 15 September, more than a month after the revised school dates were published on 2 August,” she said.

Swanepoel said the council could not understand that despite the “department alleging that [it] could not extend the contracts”, it issued correspondence asking contractors to continue their services on these routes until 2 October. 

Suspect timing

“Contractors continued providing transport services in spite of any extension letters, as this was not a strange occurrence and the department continued to remunerate contractors for this service. There was this tacit agreement between the contractors and the department. 

“Therefore, essentially the contracts which allegedly expired were extended until 2 October. The department therefore afforded themselves enough time to issue new tenders for these contracts and prepare themselves for after 2 October when contracts were to expire again,” said Swanepoel.

However, Swanepoel alleged, the department waited until only four days were left before the end of the agreement to embark on an emergency procurement process. “On 28 September, the department sent out tender invitations via email, with the closing date being Wednesday 30 September at 2pm and services to commence the following Monday,” she said. 

“These invitations were sent out after close of business on Monday, affording contractors less than two days to complete tender applications. Furthermore, the department also showed prejudice as some contractors received up to 25 invitations and others received none. We requested that the department avail tender opportunities and afford all with an equal opportunity. 

“The department failed to make these tenders available to everyone and we approached the court. The judge criticised the lack of transparency during the procurement process.”

The judgment has been reserved. 

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Education department spokesperson Bronagh Hammond would not comment other than to say it has the right to undertake emergency procurement and is acting within the confines of the Public Finance Management Act. “Presently there is a matter between [the council] and the department before court,” she said. 

The situation comes in the wake of a problem with scholar transport in the Karoo reported in New Frame in January. The department was forced to reinstate the service after concerned parents in Beaufort West barricaded the N1 with rocks and burning tyres. Their protest followed the department’s decision to cancel scholar transport for the pupils of Mandlenkosi High School and HM Dlikidla Primary School. 

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In an earlier case, the failure to extend a contract resulted in most of the pupils at St Michael’s Primary School in Grabouw missing the start of a new school term in 2017. The farm school caters for children in rural areas such as Snake Park. They have to cross the N2 and also pass a “dangerous” bush on their way to and from the school. According to some parents, their children walk a distance of 5.8km every day. 

The school’s governing body sent a petition and an application for scholar transport to the department’s Overberg district office in May of that year. St Michael’s principal at the time, Rehard Smith, said the school then reapplied for scholar transport in September but had no response from the department. He said only 100 out of 290 pupils showed up for school. 

‘Far from everything’

In Ceres in the Cape Winelands, resident Nolitha Makhumalo said she had to send her 10-year-old child to live with her aunt in Philippi to be close to school.

“The problem here is that we are on farms. We are far from everything, including schools. Sending a child to school is always a struggle here. Scholar transport is not reliable. Today your child has transport that takes him or her to and from the school. Tomorrow there is no transport. You go to the school to find out. The answer is always the same: the scholar transport contract has expired,” she said.  

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Swanepoel said although the council is contracted by the department to transport pupils who qualify for the service, there have been numerous disputes between its bus operators and the department. These troubles, she said, were mostly caused by an “unfair power balance in the relationship”.

“This relationship was worsened by Covid-19. The majority of the bus operators’ sole income is the provision of learner transport services. With schools being closed for nearly three months and leisure travel prohibited, many operators had no means of generating any income, placing great strain on operators. [The council] has requested financial assistance but with no success,” she said.

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