Category: Learner Transport

277 | Small Bus Operators and the Public Transport Subsidy Policy: Constitutionality, and Access to Education

The Code of Conduct for both scholars and drivers has been a key part of structuring the Learner Transport market’s behaviour in the vehicle. However, the ergonomic characteristics of most learner transport services– in buses and minibus taxis– has not been the best. Challenges are far reaching, complex and compounded by limited access to streamlined opportunities between and across bus operators within this market. The South African Small Bus Operators Council (SANSBOC) aims to fundamentally transform the learner transport market in the rural, peri-urban and township communities with the support of the Draft Public Transport Subsidy Policy. This note is a brief reflection of the discussions held with the National Department of Transport’s consulting team around the Draft Public Transport Subsidy Policy.

The South African Small Bus Operators Council (SANSBOC) represents over 1500 members, 35% of which are women, with 9000 buses, in all 9 provinces. It creates direct employment for 22 620 people, spread over R1.8bn in salaries circulating in local economies. 

Furthermore, it represents an asset base of approximately R5.3bn, with the combined annual revenue of all members exceeding R6bn. 

Annual passenger trips are estimated at 235 million, 80% of the SBO’s operations are in the Learner Transport market, and 70% operate in rural areas. Given that access to education is a right, and public transport is a public service, SANSBOC is in a unique position to carve a narrative to bring Learner Transport to the policy table within its unique nuances and experiences.

” …the new policy framework would take a more multi-criteria approach in which both user group, geography and transport mode would be tied together to form a subsidy continuum”.

O H Mokwena

Public transport subsidies are a Constitutional issue

The Draft Public Transport Subsidy Policy is a paradigm shift in the vision and mission for public transport in South Africa, as it represents a strong move away from the “efficiency” measures in the White Paper and other strategies, toward a stronger focus on justice as described in the Constitution of South Africa:

Vision. Provide financial support to the impoverished citizens to enhance their mobility to attain basic economic, social and education needs whilst ensuring economic and environmental sustainability of the society.
Mission. To recognize and accept the fundamental role of mobility functions and public transport service in particular in the socio-economic development of the Country and in facilitating its citizens to fulfil their basic rights provided for in the Constitution.

This could be because the policy is responding directly to policy problems which have been highlighted in other professional environments, and the media, but seldom surfacing at a policy level. Chief among them is how much South African households are spending on low capacity transport modes (motor cars). This reaffirms previous findings that of a study in 2007 which estimated “explosive growth in car ownership [is] expected in historically disadvantaged areas of South African cities as middle-class incomes grow”.

It also responds to the misspecification of the current subsidy policy and its exclusion of dominant public transport services which represents the silo approach to policy making in public transport, which was identified in a paper presented in 2008. There is also the lack of incentives for innovation, and not accounting for operating conditions, which is directly related to the need for smaller cities and towns’ fiscal needs being much higher than those in urban areas. But it is also related to the extent to which transport deserts and transport disadvantage are alleviated– these can occur in urban and rural areas alike. Hence, the strong sense of a subsidy policy built on Constitutional foundations, seems to be a better toned policy than one only focused on “safe, reliable, effective, efficient, environmentally benign and fully integrated transport operations and infrastructure” (as noted in the 2021 revised White Paper, which is synonymous with the 1996 vision).  

Whereas in the 2017 Draft White Paper the tone of the vision was a more toned focus for a transport system that provides equitable and reliable access for all in an economically and environmentally sustainable manner to advance inclusive growth and competitiveness of the country. With the above in mind, finding a path for Small Bus Operators (SBO’s) to legitimately outline their position is not easy, but scholar transport, and a more multi-dimensional policy could help.

The scholar transport market needs to stand out in the Subsidy Policy 

Given this scale, SANSBOC is a custodian of the Learner Transport Policy in rural areas, as transporting learners is, essentially, the core business of 80% of the SBO’s. 

Members have invested relationships, initiatives, standard operating procedures and capital in the Learner Transport markets. 

The scholar transport market represents 14.7 million trips, which accounts for 79% of all education trips. Rural areas this demand is approximately 40% of all education trips, 7.5 million. When disaggregated for bus transport, 821 000 learners commute by bus on a daily basis and this only 16% of the motorised learner travel demand. 

As per the Learner Transport Policy[I] of 2015 scholars with disabilities must also be included in the provision of transport, they account for 1.9% of the daily bus commuters, little over 16 000 individuals. 

The scholar transport in rural areas accounts for 38% of the bus market, which is equivalent to 342 000 learners. The acute difference between Urban and Rural areas is also notable, where bus use accounts for 30.4% of the scholar transport market in rural areas, and only 24.6% in urban areas—the minibus taxi dominates by 69.6% and 73.9%, respectively.

Overall, the learner transport market is not only part of a constitutional debate for ‘access to education’, it is rather a market segment that is (a) low volume market in need for growth; (b) dominated by local minibus taxi operations; and (c) has a unique cost profile as universal accessibility is a key part of enabling learners to board, alight and have best-fit ergonomic characteristics within the vehicle. Overcoming these limitations come at a cost.

Learner Transport Safety Summit- Case Study: On the 25th April 2019, a Learner Transport Safety Education Summit & Career Exhibition was hosted by Let Facilitators at the Mmabatho Convention Centre in the North West Province with the aim of “Making every journey to school a safe one”. The engagement involved a multi-stakeholder approach to formulating learner transport user and operator behavioural codes to ensure a consistent approach to safety in a manner that is self-reinforcing. Read the full article here.

It was noted in the engagement that “persons without income” are an inclusive term, including scholars. However, SANSBOC argue that explicitly referring to Learners or Scholars is more consistent with the policy frame as travel behaviour is not necessarily driven by income alone.

In the past 15 years, SANSBOC has become a 1500 member strong organisation representing over R11bn  in revenue and assets circulating in urban and mostly rural economies– with over 200 million passenger journeys per year. 

While there are policy positions aimed at supporting SANSBOC, they are inherently once-off, and do not enable SBOs to catch-up to companies which have had access to the market for more than 50 years in 15 years. 

As such, the recently published Draft Public Transport Subsidy Policy needs to consider framing itself in a manner responds to who is the commuter (user), where are they commuting (geography), and what kind of service are they looking for (service and trip purpose). 

Developing a user, geography and service sensitive subsidy framework

Explicitly stating and referring to learner transport, or scholars, or education related mobility would stretch the Subsidy Policy framework significantly. 

It would require the policy team to build a framework that is representative of the different user segments that the subsidy is carved for; rather than leaning on an aggregate framework presented in the policy document. 

Furthermore, the implications of this user based approach would also require a geographic characterisation of each of the user groups deemed to require a subsidy. 

As a result, the new policy framework would take a more multi-criteria approach in which both user group, geography and transport mode would be tied together to form a subsidy continuum. This may also change the evaluation and procurement frameworks for learner transport contracts– which are directly tied to the SBO’s.

The National Scholar Transport Policy of 2009, under Minister Jeff Radebe, presents a broad cycle of how the procurement process for the Scholar Transport Contracts was structured. Shifting toward a more multi-criteria approach for the subsidy design and allocation implies that the school facility database, service design, rate structure, and budget frame will probably change. A positive side for the Draft Public Transport Subsidy Policy is that there is a 60:40 split in favour of Category B and C municipalities, to my knowledge.

The work I was part of with SANSBOC, highlighted the importance of carving a critical focus on each of the stakeholders in the passenger transport sector, but also understanding that not all interests can be satisfied. 

However, it is important for the subsidy policy’s capital frame to enhance the potential of Small Bus Operators to grow their business, retain their institutional role in the Scholar Transport Market, and branch into greater integration with advanced technologies—beyond basic telematics. In previous notes, I highlighted the extensive need for Provincial Frameworks to shift toward a more proactive angle to address and redress learner transport issues.

As we know in economic regulation, the challenge here involves being able to manage the effort required to achieve these broad goals for the operators, but also the cost and transparency tied to both operators and regulators. 

In the rural area, this dynamic becomes even more acute, and the importance of a strong understanding of the geographic dynamics is key. 

[i] Policy Focus Area 3.3, statement 3.3.1 indicates that learners with disabilities must be among the beneficiaries of learner transport services; Policy Focus Area 3.9, Statement 3.9.1 and 3.9.2. state that scholar transport services must be universal accessible. 


This article is a part of the presentation made for SANSBOC which I contributed to, and made to the National Department of Transport’s Subsidy Policy team. We made inputs, and also captured some of the feedback and drafted a written policy specific submission for the NDoT team. However, the views expressed here are not necessarily those of SANSBOC or the NDoT. Their explicit views are presented in their documents and from direct correspondence with the secretariat.