On 24 August 2011, fourteen learners and a bus driver drowned after the bus in which they were being transported left the road and subsequently submerged in a river in Rheenendal just outside Knysna. 43 learners survived the accident.
The bus – operated by JBS Transport CC t/a African Express (“JBS Transport”) – was contracted by the Western Cape Education Department (“WCED”) to transport 65 learners in the area as part of the WCED learner transport scheme.
Two investigations into the cause of the accident were initiated by the Western Cape Department of Transport and Public Work and SAPS. The results of these investigations are yet to be released.
As details emerged following the accident, it became apparent to the WCED that certain terms and conditions of the service level agreement entered into between the WCED and JBS Transport (the “SLA”) may not have been honoured.
Immediately following the accident, I instructed the WCED to conduct an investigation into the following:
1. The extent to which the terms and conditions of the SLA entered into between the WCED and JBS Transport were honoured; and
2. The extent to which the instructions issued by the WCED to all concerned in respect of their responsibilities insofar as the WCED learner transport system is concerned were followed.
The WCED investigation did not focus on the possible causes or the precise sequence of the events at the scene of the accident. Understanding the causes and the sequence of events of the accident require technical findings currently being considered as part of the investigations of other agencies, including the Western Cape Department of Transport and Public Works and SAPS. Similarly, all aspects concerning the roadworthiness of the relevant vehicles and the compliance of JBS Transport and the relevant vehicle testing centres with applicable transport-related legislation and regulations are currently being conducted by the Western Cape Department of Transport and Public Works and, as such, have not been investigated by the WCED.
The following findings of the WCED were made after a full review of:
· all relevant documents available to the WCED concerning the learner transport scheme in place for learners at Rheenendal Primary School; and
· all relevant information collected by the WCED through a series of interviews with appropriate officials, school staff (including the school principal and his deputy), community members, members of the public and traffic authorities.
After considering all information and documentation concerning the Rheenendal bus accident provided to and collected by the WCED, the WCED concluded that JBS Transport may have acted in breach of the SLA in that:
· A replacement bus was used without the required written permission.
· The replacement vehicle did not provide a seat per learner as stipulated in the SLA.
· The use of the replacement bus on that particular route constituted a breach of another agreement covering another route where the replacement bus is supposed to be used.
In addition, the WCED identified shortcomings in the monitoring and control of the learner transport service provided along the approved route in question.
Following the investigation by the WCED, a number of apparent shortcomings have been identified concerning:
· The formal substitution of the approved learner transport vehicle.
· The management of concerns raised by the school community regarding the roadworthiness and suitability of the vehicle transporting the learners.
Final Recommendations of and Actions Taken by the WCED:
Following the completion of the WCED investigation, I have been provided with sufficient information to endorse the recommendations made to me by the WCED.
The following recommendations were made to me and are currently being implemented with my approval by the WCED:
1. The WCED is taking steps to address the apparent breach of the SLA by JBS Transport and is obtaining legal advice before it takes further action.
2. The WCED is evaluating the role of all concerned in the implementation of the WCED learner transport system and, where shortcomings in the monitoring and control of this system have been identified, the WCED will take appropriate action. Earlier this week, the WCED referred the Rheenendal bus accident matter to its Labour Relations division for further possible action;
3. To improve the safety of learners who use transport provided by the WCED, the Head of the WCED has scheduled a compulsory information session for all district directors this week to ensure that they and their respective district offices are effectively monitoring:
· Compliance of service providers with the learner transport service level agreements in place with the WCED; and
· Compliance of all concerned with instructions relating to learner transport issued to them by the WCED to date;
4. The WCED has arranged for the immediate implementation of a checklist confirming compliance with service level agreement stipulations. The checklist is to be completed on a quarterly basis – signed by each principal, district officials and district director – and submitted to WCED Head Office;
5. The WCED will remind all school principals by way of a circular of their responsibility to adhere to the instructions issued to them by the WCED from time to time regarding the WCED’s learner transport system. This circular will remind school principals, for example, to notify the relevant WCED officials as and when they become aware of any problems concerning the roadworthiness or safety of learner transport vehicles provided to them by the WCED; and
6. To further improve the safety of learners who use transport provided by the WCED, the WCED will, in the coming months, conduct a full review of its existing learner transport system. This will be initiated once the investigation by the Department of Transport and Public Works has been completed.
The WCED transports over 48 000 learners every day as part of its learner transport scheme and we are committed to identifying and developing ways of improving the safety of the WCED learner transport system.
The WCED requires the commitment and co-operation of a number of parties in this regard, including the Western Cape Department of Transport and Public Works, the Western Cape Department of Community Safety, and SAPS.
The events of 24 August 2011 will not be forgotten. I salute those brave men, women and learners who assisted with the rescue operation and I am grateful that no more lives were lost. I am also thankful to those citizens, businesses and organisations that have provided their support to the survivors, their families, and the broader Rheenendal Primary School community.
As we remember those lost in the Rheenendal bus tragedy, I am compelled and committed to do what is necessary to improve the safety of the WCED learner transport system so that all learners have secure access to education. We will also continue to do what is necessary and possible to support the community of Rheenendal.