The new South African school year began on 9 January and with it started the annual 200-days-long job of school bus drivers. For the duration of each year, these drivers are exposed to challenges that few people stop to think about or are aware of.
According to the Southern African Bus Operators Association (SABOA), the main issues experienced by scholar transport operators who are contracted to the Department of Education are unsustainable remuneration rates of tenders; non-provision for any escalation to compensate the operator for inflationary costs; the late payment of their monthly claims; and the unpaid discrepancy between the 200-days school year and their 12-month business year.
However, learner bus drivers are quick to state that they take pride in the essential role they play in the education process of future generations. Much of the struggles of running profitable businesses are overshadowed by the fulfilment of playing driver and custodian to this unique category of passengers.
Most parents have never had the opportunity to speak to the scholar bus drivers to find out how their children behave while being transported to and from school. Nazeem Dollie, partner in the Overland Tours family business, situated in the Western Cape, has much to say about the custodian role of school bus drivers. “Few understand the major responsibility and special care that school bus drivers have, particularly when there is no driver’ assistant or monitor on board. This adult supervision is required of the driver while at the same time they need to keep eyes on the road to ensure safe passage”
The most challenging passengers are the 7-year old Grade R and 17-year-old Grade 12 learners
Dollie goes on to explain that transporting 50 to 60 children, many of whom are undergoing the volatile stage of adolescence, comes with its fair share of obstacles. He says that the most challenging passengers are the 7-year old Grade R and 17-year-old Grade 12 learners. The younger charges are often bewildered by travelling without a family member and tend to cry their way through the first days or weeks of the school year. On the other end, Grade 12’s can be bullies making the daily commute for their younger counterparts challenging.
Various misdemeanours and vandalism to the bus is reported to the driver by whistleblowers. In the case of a violent altercation or repeated offences, perpetrators are reported to the school which informs the parents. Then an internal hearing takes place where the school governing body adjudicates the matter and in extreme cases, the child is expelled from the transport or the matter is handed over to the police.
Witnessing the 12-year school journey is remarkable
Throughout Dollie’s 20-year career as a scholar bus driver he has had the privilege of seeing several generations of learners cross the threshold of his bus and he gets emotional when describing the remarkable growth stages they undergo, right before his eyes, throughout their 12-year schooling career. “Every year I observe each of my passengers navigating their primary and then high school journey which makes me conscious that I am transporting the future of the country. The idea that some of them go on to play an important role in society makes me feel like I was one of their educators,” reflects Dollie.
Drivers have a convenient early morning and mid-afternoon schedule
Elias Chongo, owner of Chongo Express in North West owns three scholar transport buses servicing the Dr Kenneth Kaunda region made up of Potchesfstroom, Klerksdorp, Wolmeranstad and Ventersdorp, shares a grave downside to operating learner transport. Often he faces the difficulty of finding reliable drivers that will honour their daily commitment without frequent personal excuses for absenteeism. Despite the convenient schedule of working only early morning and mid-afternoon, some drivers still fail to report to duty when required.
Another challenge is the difficulty of securing contracts from the Department of Education which he says tend to be awarded to larger operators. The result is that he cannot expand his business by increasing his fleet and servicing more routes.
School holidays can result in no revenue for operators
Then there is the down period of school holidays when his company faces a lot of red tape to secure temporary permits to transport general commuters in a private capacity. “Requirements such as names, identity numbers, addresses and telephone numbers have to be supplied for each passenger as well as a full itinerary for the trip specifying all the routes which will be travelled form part of the application,” complains Chongo. Should permits be refused, Chongo finds himself with idle buses and no revenue during school holidays.
Some parents express their gratitude
Just these few aspects of scholar bus operations highlighted by Dollie and Chongo shed some light on this crucial yet underrated element of the educational ecosystem. Dollie testifies that there are nevertheless some parents who express their gratitude for the role he plays in their childrens’ lives and every so often he receives a gift from them in recognition of his service. While children come with their individual mixes of commendable and annoying qualities, it is the responsibility of the adults in their lives to keep them in check. “The African proverb states that, ‘It takes a village to raise a child’ and school bus drivers are part of this village,” affirms Eric Cornelius, Executive Manager of SABOA.
The Southern African Bus Operators Association (SABOA) was formed in 1980 to represent the interests of the public transport industry at government level as well as among its stakeholders. SABOA represents about 920 bus operators who collectively operate approximately between 13 000 and 14 000 buses.
SABOA is the credible voice of an inclusive, efficient, sustainable and transforming bus and coach industry. It plays a pivotal role in an integrated transport system through safe, reliable and affordable bus and coach services that add value, and are attractive to stakeholders
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South Africa Today – Accidents