Matsha tragedy: Government should take responsibility

This week the ruling party technically killed a motion which would have seen Parliament resolving that government should ensure that there is full compliance with the policy that prohibits transporting students in trucks and instituting an independent enquiry into the Matsha College students’ accident to establish why the policy was breached.

The motion was prompted by the Friday13th November road traffic accident in which seven students of Matsha College perished and others were seriously injured when an open truck transporting them to their home villages overturned along Letlhakeng-Motokwe road near the village of Dutlwe west of Takatokwane village in the Kweneng District. 

The motion sought to address the evil system of transporting students in open trucks only befitting transportation of animals and goods. In 1995 nine students and a teacher of Gosemama School in Tswapong died while others sustained injuries in a road accident involving an open truck. In the same year, two Setlalekgosi secondary school students died around Dikabeya when an open truck they were transported in had an accident. In 2003, five students from Kedia Primary School in the Boteti died and others were injured when their open truck overturned. In March 2005, two students from Shakawe Secondary School died and others including a teacher were injured after their truck overturned. These accidents, it would seem, were not lessons enough for the government as the practice continued unabated.

Article 2 of the UN Convention on the rights of the child provides that all children have these rights, no matter who they are, where they live, what their parents do, what language they speak, what their religion is, whether its a boy or girl, what their culture is, whether they have a disability, whether they are rich or poor. No child should be treated unfairly on any basis. Article 19 further provides that you have the right to be protected from being hurt and mistreated, in body or mind. Article 3 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides that everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of personî. 

Therefore the practice of transporting students like animals or bags of maize or sorghum is a gross violation of not only their basic and fundamental human rights but also their rights as children. It is not only the fact of accidents that may be fatal because the trucks are open. It is also that these children are exposed to adverse weather conditions. It is also traumatic for students to be packed confined and cramped like sardines in a truck.

Over the years the government has exhibited a rather lackadaisical attitude on this issue.  On 27 July 2005 the then Minister of Education Jacob Nkate was quoted in Mmegi as saying  “We would all like to have safer methods of transportation but it is not practical”. The Minister of Presidential Affairs, Eric Molale, refused to give details of the policy prohibiting transportation of students in open trucks.

There are buses designed for difficult terrains in some areas in Botswana. Such modes of transport are used in countries like Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. Besides, most if not all of the reported accidents of open trucks ferrying students occurred on tarred roads. Therefore, the argument of rough terrains as reasons for transporting students in unsafe trucks is flawed.  Why were the students not ferried by buses to a point of rough roads and thereafter transported by small four wheel drives? 

The 2003 National Road Accident Symposium Proceedings, organised by Botswana Society, officially opened by HE Festus Mogae resolved or made a recommendation that there was need to outlaw the transportation of school children in the back of open trucks. The symposium noted that all contributing aspects of Botswana’s accident rate required urgent attention and it was difficult to place one above any other. This symposium was in 2003 but the government continued to transport school children in open trucks and many accidents occurred post the symposium.

While we are told there is a policy, like most policies which are seldom implemented or actualised, the purported policy prohibiting transportation of pupils in open trucks (which I must add is hidden like a demigod) hasn’t been complied with. There is therefore a need for the Minister responsible, in conjunction with the Department of Road Transport and the Botswana Police Service-Traffic Division to enact a subsidiary or delegated legislation in the form of traffic rules to outlaw the transportation of school children in the back of open trucks to force compliance with the said policy.

The motion also called for the House to institute an independent enquiry into the Matsha College students’ accident to establish why the policy was breached. There is an ongoing police investigation and some government investigation as said by the minister when giving a statement in Parliament on Monday. However, there have been numerous accidents in which school children and teachers were killed and injured in accidents where open trucks were used as transport. There is no report that has been availed to members of the public or Parliament on past accidents. There was never an independent inquiry into the whole issue to establish how this policy is structured, how it is supposed to be implemented and why it is breached with impunity. There is a culture of not releasing investigation reports by the government. A more appropriate investigation of the issue should be an independent commission of inquiry as opposed to a police investigation or the government investigating itself through its officials. A team of independent investigators will, if appointed, serve as fact-finders, proposers of a policy reform and healers for the distressed children and the nation. There should be an inquiry headed by an esteemed person of integrity e.g. a serving or retired judge because of the need to have an independent and trustworthy assessment of what happened. We need people with necessary competence and independence from government who will bring with them the credibility of their offices and professions. Pursuant to democratic principles of accountability and transparency, there is an obvious advantage to start a probe with a broadly based confidence in the individual or team appointed to conduct it. What is more, judges, if appointed for the purpose, have the proficiency and or adeptness to run proper inquiries. Afterwards, government and Parliament, acting in accordance with the recommendations, can take a decision on what must be done in terms of corrective measures.

Editor's Comment
What about employees in private sector?

How can this be achieved when there already is little care about the working conditions of those within the private sector employ?For a long time, private sector employees have been neglected by their employers, not because they cannot do better to care for them, but because they take advantage of government's laxity when it comes to protecting and advocating for public sector employees, giving the cue to employers within the private sector...

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