The start of the school year hangs in the balance for 103,000 Eastern Cape pupils who rely on the province’s scholar transport programme to get to school on Wednesday.
This comes amid a standoff between service operators, who are still waiting to be paid for their services from last year, and the provincial transport department.
Operators, who are threatening to withhold their services, say their invoices for November and December have still not been paid, while the transport department has made repeated assurances that pupils will have transport when schools open.
In addition to these woes, recent storms and floods have damaged road infrastructure.
Provincial transport spokesperson Unathi Binqose said the department has “attended to, and continues to attend to any challenges that may hinder the provision of the scholar transport programme”.
“We have done our homework and we are pleased with the ground covered so far,” Binqose said.
“We continue to attend to challenges relating to scholar transport.
“We are meeting with operators on Tuesday to tighten any loose ends and recap on a few items discussed previously, including the issue of payment.
“Come Wednesday, we expect service to be there, ferrying learners to and from school.
“And our aim is to ensure a smooth and sustained service going forward.”
But Gabs Mtshala, one of the service providers who spoke to the Daily Dispatch on behalf of scholar transport operators in the Buffalo City and Amathole areas, said the operators were “not ready” to transport pupils on Wednesday because they still had not been paid for November and December.
“Operators are up in arms with the department of transport on nonpayment issues,” Mtshala, who is also chair of Santaco in the Buffalo City and Amathole areas, said.
“People are expected to start operating on Wednesday though they were not paid for two months.
“The agreement was that once you submit your invoice, you expect to be paid within 25 days.”
Mtshala said he had been inundated with calls and complaints from the operators over nonpayment.
People are expected to start operating on Wednesday though they were not paid for two months.
“No reasons were communicated to operators on the delays to pay them.
“No decision has been taken by the operators, but it’s highly possible the operators might hold back their services until they are paid.”
Another scholar transport operator, who asked not to be named, said operators had met this week over the nonpayment issue.
“The planning is that we must not transport pupils on Wednesday until there is payment from the department.
“This lack of payment on time is affecting the condition of our vehicles.
“Some operators do not even have money for the repayment of their vehicles.”
Transport MEC Weziwe Tikana-Gxothiwe said the department was mooting “possible forensic investigation” after two audit reports discovered discrepancies in the finances of the scholar transport system.
“The two audit reports were conducted independently, by Ernst & Young and by the auditor-general respectively.
“Both reports found instances of over and underpayments to operators. This was largely due to insufficient internal controls.”
Tikana-Gxothiwe has directed head of department Mzi Mafani to engage the provincial treasury for an “impartial review of the reports and how best to implement their recommendations”.
“The implementation of the recommendations of the reports cannot and will not be delayed.
“That is how seriously we are taking them. We are engaging treasury for an impartial review and an unapologetic implementation of the recommendations.
“And if treasury, upon completing their review, feels a need for a thorough forensic investigation, we will be only happy to comply.”
This year is likely to be one of our most challenging in recent years in infrastructure
Tikana-Gxothiwe said consequence management would be another way to deal with individuals within the department who are found at fault for any wrongdoing.
Of the damage to roads and bridges, as a result of floods, Binqose said: “This year is likely to be one of our most challenging in recent years in infrastructure, given the number of damaging rains experienced consistently for nearly two months now.
“Fixing roads needs time and money — and those are the things we don’t have the luxury of.
“But our engineers are working tirelessly to deal with challenges as they reach us.
“The different municipalities across the province also have their hands full dealing with the same problem as we know that not all the roads are provincial roads.
“We are working and will continue to do so to attend to the infrastructure problems,” Binqose said.