Long walk to school: 30 years into freedom, many kids in South Africa still walk miles to class

DUNDEE, South Africa (AP) — On weekdays, 14-year-old Luyanda Hlali gets up before dawn to fetch firewood and cow dung to start a fire and boil some water before her four siblings and parents wake up.

The mornings are a hive of activity in the Nhlangothi home, in the tiny village of Stratford in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province. Once her chores are done, Luyanda embarks on a 10-kilometer (6-mile) walk to her school.

There are no school buses. There is only the long, dusty road where thieves and bad men can accost her.

Luyanda is one of tens of thousands of children in South Africa’s poorest and most remote rural communities who still face long walks to the nearest public school, nearly 30 years after the nation ushered in democratic change.

The hardships underscore the children’s unequal access to education; the lack of government-funded school transportation has exacerbated myriad dangers.

Girls face the threat of assault and robberies are rampant. Parents, local leaders and activists say the situation perpetuates already existing inequalities in a country described by the World Bank as the most unequal in the world.

In KwaZulu-Natal, campaigners and activists are pressing authorities to provide transport for over 200,000 schoolchildren like Luyanda — kids who have to walk 3 kilometers or more to school.

That distance, under President Cyril Ramaphosa’s government policy, requires authorities to provide transportation for the students. But with poverty soaring and unemployment in the country of 56 million people at over 25%, school buses are low on the list of priorities.

Psychologist Melinda du Toit says the lack of school transportation is indicative of the socio-economic realities of South Africa and its inherent inequality. Those who cannot afford to live in urban areas will continue to lack basic services.

A 2020 Amnesty International report said children’s experience in South Africa “still very much depends on where they are born, how wealthy they are, and the color of their skin.”

South Africa’s education system, the report said, “continues to be dogged by stark inequalities and chronic underperformance that have deep roots in the legacy of apartheid, but which are also not being effectively tackled” by the government.

In KwaZulu-Natal, where more than 30% of the province’s 12.4 million people are unemployed and on welfare, many say they have to choose between buying food or paying 350 South African rands, roughly $19, a month for public transport.

“Sometimes these children go to school without eating breakfast,” said Bongiwe Nhlangothi, Luyanda’s grandmother.

She says she fears the most when her grandchildren are on the road.

“There are drug addicts around here, when they come across the children in the early hours of the morning, they rob them of their phones, threaten them with knives and try to rape them,” Nhlangothi said.

A school principal in a village located about 50 kilometers (31 miles) from the coalmining town of Dundee, recounted his struggle to get more school buses approved after some of his students, girls, were raped by local thugs.

“The bus was full and they had to walk to school,” the principal said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.

The school has two old buses but they can only take about 65 children — and he has more than 400 students in his school. The principal said he fears one of the buses could permanently break down — or crash.

In September 2022, 18 students were killed in the province when their overcrowded minivan crashed on the way to school in the town of Pongola.

Matthew Ngcobo, a councilman in the municipality of Endumeni, took The Associated Press to a ravine where children have to cross a shallow but rapid river on foot.

“This place is very dangerous,” Ngcobo said. “The last time when it rained heavily, a motorist had to be rescued after his car was swept away.”

“Imagine children having to go through this daily to get access to education,” he added.

Some parents have resorted to boarding their children to live closer to their schools — but that can be costly and leaves them without precious help at home.

Bayanda Hlongwane, a ninth grader at the Ebusi Combined School in the village of Wasbank, said he was often late and “the teachers would not let me in.”

He begged his parents to let him live closer. They relented and he is now staying with relatives, only about 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) from his school.

Activist Tebogo Tshesane who works for Equal Education, a nonprofit organization, says the campaign for better school transportation across KwaZulu-Natal started back in 2014, sparked by letters from students who were walking for up to two hours to school.

The latest government figures have 1,148 schools in KwaZulu-Natal on a waiting list for government-funded school transportation.

The provincial department of education declined to be interviewed for this story.

The consistent answer from the education department is that there is no money, so the children keep walking.

“It is a day to day challenge,” said Tshesane.

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