“We want proper transport, that’s it,” said Nomzamo Simelane, 14, a grade 9 pupil from Tisiteni Combined School in Ermelo, Mpumalanga.
She addressed the issues after the funeral service of three of the nine children who died when an unroadworthy minibus taxi transporting learners capsized at the Mpuluzi bridge on 16 February. Learners from Tisiteni, Sitanani Primary School, Nantithuba Stimulation Centre and Wesley Memorial Primary School died in the accident.
A joint funeral service was held on 24 February at Mayflower Stadium for eight-year-old Lungelo Sibisi, who was in grade 2, four-year-old Abenathi Nhlabathi in grade R and nine-year-old Mpilo Ntumba who attended Nantithuba, a school for disabled children. Other families opted for private burial ceremonies on different days. The funeral service, which was attended by the families of the nine children, was opened by the Mpuluzi Secondary School choir singing the national anthem. In front of each bereaved family, a framed picture of their child was displayed.
Among those pictures was one of 13-year-old Charmaine Sibiya, a grade 8 student who attended Tisiteni with Nomzamo, who wasn’t the only learner to use the service to call on the government and schools to supply children with adequate and safe school transport. Jabulile Nxumalo, 15, also made the call “because they are being overloaded in the transport … We would like public transport that can accommodate all the learners.
“As learners, we wish that an accident of this kind never occurs again. We would like to request the department of safety and security and also parents to make sure that we are safe, and we as learners commit ourselves to be responsible for our safety.”
Njabulo Thwala, 15, and Siphesihle Madonsela, 14, also paid tribute to Charmaine. Njabulo shared a class with her and said she was kind and quiet. Jabulile said Charmaine’s death was tragic, shedding tears while talking. Nomzamo recalled a time when she was in the school choir with Charmaine, even mimicking Charmaine’s voice when she wanted to sing alto. “‘Nomzamo, let’s go and sing.’ No, Charmaine, you have a soprano voice.”
Learning about the death of Charmaine and other learners, she said, broke her heart. “They were so young … I have been asking myself who is next, me or my friend?” said a devastated Siphesihle.
The families and government officials sat under a white tent during the funeral service, while community members sat on the stands in a show of support.
Vincent Nkambule, 52, an uncle and grandfather, was at the scene of the harrowing accident just 15 minutes after the taxi capsized on the D267 road between Mayflower and Dundonald in Gert Sibande District Municipality. He rushed to the scene after receiving a call from his niece, whose child Phiwokuhle Nkosi was among those in the taxi. His niece had been alerted by the school about the accident. Five children from the Nkambule family were in the taxi.
“Mothers of the children were crying and you tried to comfort them. But on the other hand, you must look for children needing emergency help,” said Nkambule.
Another grandparent at the scene, Ndoda Nhlabathi, 60, collapsed when he saw the tiny body of his four-year-old grandchild Abenathi Nhlabathi.
“Others were dead. Others were screaming and crying for help. Then we tried to do anything to help them,” said Nkambule.
Two children related to Nkambule, Charmaine Sibiya and Siphesihle Nhleko, 10, were among the nine children who died. “I realised this at the scene because they were together. When we separated them, we saw that Charmaine was still alive but Siphesihle was already dead next to the water, and others were in the water,” said Nkambule.
Three other children from the Nkambule family survived – Siphesihle Nkosi, 10, in grade 4; Thandolwethu Nkosi, six, who is in grade 1; and Phiwokuhle Nkosi, eight, who is doing grade 8. Phiwokuhle was discharged on 23 February from Kiaat Private Hospital with a leg injury. Siphesihle and Thandolwethu were transferred from the intensive care unit to a general ward for rehabilitation.
Charmaine and Siphesihle were buried on 26 February. “This memory is not right because we are devastated. It’s traumatic,” said Nkambule.
Nhlabathi heard the news while travelling on a bus. He said a young man sitting next to him received a call about an accident involving schoolchildren. “I didn’t think my grandchild was part of the accident,” he said. “Arriving at the scene, I saw my grandchild laying there. I collapsed. I was too shocked and in pain.”
Nhlabathi asked the Department of Basic Education to play a role in monitoring the private transportation of schoolchildren and to avoid overloading. Nkambule echoed Nhlabathi’s words when asking the department to collaborate with traffic officials and the South African Police Service to monitor such transportation.
The taxi driver allegedly lost control of the vehicle and jumped from the moving taxi to save his own life. He was arrested and has been charged with nine counts of culpable homicide and several road traffic violations, according to Moeti Mmusi, the spokesperson for the Mpumalanga Department of Community Safety, Security and Liaison. These include operating without a valid driver’s licence, driving an unroadworthy vehicle and operating a vehicle without a valid licence disc.
Congress of South African Students secretary for Mpumalanga Brilliant Mncina said Mmusi’s department and the education department have to take accountability for the accident. “They are responsible for reliable scholar transport. They are in charge of making sure learners don’t struggle travelling to and from school.”
Mncina added that the department is also responsible for making sure every vehicle on the road is roadworthy. She said parents must monitor drivers through the school governing body and check if the private scholar transport is reliable and safe.
Bongani Goodlord Khumalo, 42, who is on the school governing board at Wesley Memorial, said seven of the learners died instantly, one on their way to the hospital and another at the hospital. Three learners from Wesley Memorial were in the taxi. Two survived and Nothando Magagula, who was in grade four, died. Khumalo said the accident left everyone traumatised.
“I don’t think we would have had this accident if we had had a scholar transport. Scholar transport is provided by the Department of Public Works and they monitor those buses.”
Advocacy group Equal Education has been campaigning for access to scholar transport for learners in Nquthu, KwaZulu-Natal, since 2014, said researcher Kimberley Khumalo. Equal Education learner members known as equalisers have testified to risking their lives on their daily commute to school, walking long distances on foot which leaves them vulnerable to theft and sexual assault.
“Through our advocacy and legal interventions with support from the Equal Education Law Centre, we secured significant victories, namely getting government-subsidised buses for three schools in Nquthu in 2015. A National Scholar Transport Policy and Implementation Plan was published in 2015. The delivery of buses to 12 schools in Nquthu in 2018. Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga publicly committed to working with the National Treasury to explore a conditional grant to fund scholar transport in 2018. The KZN Learner Transport Policy was approved by the KZN cabinet and took effect in 2021,” she said.
Delaying the implementation of both national and provincial scholar transport policies means that many learners will still have to endure unsafe commutes to school and risk their lives to access education without any relief for a long time, said Khumalo.
And not having safe and reliable school transportation has implications for both learners and parents. “Learners could potentially spend their entire school careers walking for hours to school only to arrive tired and unable to learn effectively. Parents may have to rely on costly and unsafe private transport to transport their children to school.”