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The Hidden Dangers of School Transport in Zimbabwe

Bus Queues

By Tendai Makaripe

A group of schoolchildren from Rydaleridge Park, a middle-density suburb about 27 kilometres from Harare’s central business district, gather at a local bus stop popularly known as ‘PamaGas’ chattering and laughing.

Their cheerful faces are full of excitement for the day ahead.

Moments later, a white commuter omnibus inscribed O Jays on the windscreen arrives, and it quickly becomes a scene of organised chaos.

The children pile in, one after the other, eager to secure a spot.

Inside the omnibus, a seat ordinarily meant for four people now holds seven.

Some children sit on each other’s lap, squeezing together as tightly as possible.

The vehicle, which should carry no more than 15 passengers, is packed with around 25 pupils.

Despite the overcrowding, the children remain cheerful, oblivious to the danger lurking in their daily commute.

Their laughter and chatter fill the cramped space, masking the potential risks of travelling this way. If an accident were to happen, the consequences could be dire.

This scene is not unique to Rydale Ridge Park.

Across Zimbabwe’s suburbs, similar situations play out every day.

Overcrowded omnibuses ferry children to and from school, a situation that has been normalised yet deadly.

Last month, several boarding students returning to Mutero High School in Masvingo for the second term were injured when their hired commuter omnibus burst a tyre and overturned near Munyati River Bridge along the Harare-Masvingo Highway.

In 2018, a Highfield 2 High pupil died while 12 others were seriously injured when a commuter omnibus ferrying students from Highfield 2 and Kwayedza High schools overturned before the Southlea Park roundabout along Simon Mazorodze road.

It had 23 people on board.

The recurring incidents of accidents involving overcrowded commuter omnibuses highlight a critical and urgent safety issue facing schoolchildren in Zimbabwe.

Besides overcrowding, numerous dangers confront children whose parents hire transport operators to ferry them to and from school.

To understand the rationale behind the use of these transport players and the dangers lurking, 263Chat conducted an investigation.

The investigation revealed that parents are comfortable with kombis or private vehicle drivers ferrying their children to and from school because of their flexibility.

These transport players offer flexible pick-up and drop-off locations, which can be more convenient for parents and children compared to fixed-route public transport.

This flexibility is particularly important for families living in areas not well-served by other transport options.

A parent from Southlea Park, Charlotte Mugoni said her 9-year-old son learns at one of the primary schools just outside the central business district and for convenience’s sake, they arranged transport for him.

“As parents, we arranged with a kombi owner for daily transport. It is convenient and flexible, fitting well with our busy schedules, she said.

However, the problem of overcrowding worries her.

“The omnibus our children use often carries more passengers than they are designed for, which makes the journey uncomfortable and also increases the risk of accidents. I am worried about their safety, knowing that in an overcrowded vehicle, the chances of injuries or even fatalities in case of an accident are much higher,” she said.

Investigations by this publication revealed that parents are paying an average of US$40 to US$50 per month to transporters depending on their proximity to the school.

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In some instances, schools are negotiating on behalf of parents but the monies are paid to the schools which in turn pay the transporters.

“We know that the schools are benefiting from this in various ways but we are more concerned about the convenience that comes with this arrangement. I pay US$40 to my daughter’s school but I am told the transporter charged US$30,” said Macdonald Kasirori from Warren Park.

However, a headmaster at one of the Council primary schools in Warren Park dismissed the allegation as false.

“We are just helping parents, there is nothing in it for us,” he quipped.

While the idea of ensuring students arrive at school on time, several fundamental issues are being ignored by parents and school authorities.

Very rarely are parents checking whether drivers are in a proper state of mind to drive in the wake of rampant drug and substance abuse among the country’s youths.

The Cabinet has since approved the setting up of a Drug and Substance Abuse Agency to fight the problem.

Statistics show that over 6000 drug peddlers have been arrested since the beginning of the year, showing how rampant the drug problem is.

“Abuse of these drugs and substances by some drivers results in reckless driving behaviours, such as speeding, ignoring traffic signals, and making unsafe overtakes, to maximise their number of trips and earnings. This endangers the lives of the children they transport,” said anti-drug abuse campaigner Linda Motsi.

Some drivers take drugs to deal with the pressures of their job.

“In an attempt to fight fatigue and maintain high levels of alertness during long shifts, some drivers use drugs to keep themselves awake and functioning, especially when they have to meet tight schedules and passenger demands,” said a kombi driver Abel Nyathi from Dzivarasekwa Extension.

Unfortunately, when they come to pick up students, very few, if any, parents check to see if the driver is intoxicated or not risking the lives of their children in the process.

Research has shown that parents and learning institutions are also ignorant about the health status of drivers who ferry their children.

While this requirement is generally overlooked, its importance is seen when something bad happens.

In January, 60-year-old Samuel Honde was arrested for allegedly kidnapping 25 pupils from David Livingstone Primary School in Harare and driving them as far as Macheke.

He was contracted by parents to carry their children to and from their respective homes in Greater Harare to the school since 2016.

Some parents and teachers at the school suspected that he was suffering from some kind of mental illness as he had behaved strangely the day before and on the day of the arrest.

This brings to the fore the importance of constantly checking on the behaviour of drivers.

“We are urging parents to be careful when they provide transport in teams for their children. They should be alert and do a lot of vetting of the people they hire to ferry their children to and from school,” said the Director of Communications and Advocacy in the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education of Zimbabwe, Taungana Ndoro.

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National police spokesperson, Assistant Commissioner Paul Nyathi said: “The Zimbabwe Republic Police warns parents and guardians to ensure their representatives are present as children are picked to and from school by contracted transporters. The representatives will also assist in monitoring the movement of the hired transporters.”

The investigation also noted that schools that enter into agreements with these drivers also disregard local traffic laws, particularly the Road Traffic Act which provides that a public transport driver should have at least five years of driving experience.

Several drivers who ferry school children do not have this driving experience and in one instance it led to the death of a 17-year-old Harare Girls High School student Jocelyn Gomba who was run over and dragged to death by a commuter omnibus driven by Wadzanai Mabika.

He only had a year and a half of driving experience.

Analyst Jethro Makumbe said parents and educational institutions must take a more proactive approach in vetting the qualifications and sobriety of kombi drivers.

“This includes adhering strictly to the legal requirements for driving experience to ensure that only competent and experienced individuals are entrusted with the safety of schoolchildren,” he said.

“Strengthening regulatory enforcement and increasing awareness among parents and schools about the importance of these safety measures are essential steps towards preventing such avoidable tragedies in the future.”

The investigation also noted that several vehicles used to transport pupils are faulty.

The lack of regular maintenance and inspection of key mechanical components like the engine, suspension, and steering systems can lead to unexpected breakdowns and failures while the vehicle is in operation.

Mechanical issues can cause loss of control, breakdowns in dangerous locations, or even catastrophic failures leading to accidents.

This has a direct impact on the lives of young children.

Again, due diligence is lacking from parents and learning institutions.

An upper six student at one boys’ high school in the CBD said the omnibus they use has malfunctioned several times.

“One time, the brakes failed halfway, and we had to wait for another kombi to pick us up, making us miss our first class. Another time, a tyre burst while we were on our way, and we were stranded for over an hour. These breakdowns are inconveniencing, stressful and unsafe for all of us,” he said.

Schools and parents should collaborate to hire certified and experienced drivers who comply with the Road Traffic Act, ensuring they have the required five years of driving experience.

Regular maintenance and safety checks of vehicles must be mandated to prevent mechanical failures, with strict adherence to a maintenance schedule.

Additionally, authorities should enforce stricter regulations and conduct frequent inspections to ensure compliance with safety standards.

Establishing dedicated school bus services with proper safety features, such as seatbelts and emergency exits, can enhance the safety of student transportation.

Education campaigns for parents and students about the importance of transportation safety can also foster a culture of vigilance and responsibility

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Multi-award winning journalist/photojournalist with keen interests in politics, youth, child rights, women and development issues. Follow Lovejoy On Twitter @L_JayMut

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