Thulile Cecilia Mbatha never wants to miss a day’s work. In the event that she does, her regular passengers cannot wait for her to return so they can tell her how much they love and missed her.
This is the kind of rapport that has developed overtime between this passionate Metrobus driver and her army of passengers – learners attending school in various parts of Johannesburg. So when her alarm goes off at 3.30am every weekday, she prays there are no “health issues” that could prevent her from doing what she loves most – driving a bus.
She starts her day by doing stretching exercises to ensure her spine does not bother her during the day. After a hot bath, the 59-year-old grandmother dresses up neatly and warmly before getting into her car at 4.45am. It’s a five-minute drive from her home in Zondi 1, Soweto, to the Metrobus depot in Zondi 2. At that time of the day the road is quiet; so it’s a lovely drive to work.
But that is the lull before the storm. The energetic and noisy commuters start filling the double-decker Metrobus at 5.30am. She patiently waits for everyone to swipe their tags or pay cash before she hits the road.
Mbatha ferries about 500 school children on Route 551 from Soweto to other parts of Joburg every weekday. It’s a labour of love for Mbatha. The two-hour trip – which can be slightly longer depending on traffic jams, accidents and other unforeseen circumstances – winds through the townships, with Mbatha carefully steering the huge bus.
“I love this job. I love these children even more. Every time I step into this bus, I feel their love and respect. I feel at home. It is my responsibility to get them from home to school and back safely and on time. I provide an essential customer care service as a driver, an ad hoc counsellor and a mentor for these kids,” she says.
For Mbatha, it’s all in a day’s work. Born in Jabavu, Soweto, Mbatha has been a Metrobus driver for the past 10 years. She got her bus driver’s licence in 1987 while working for Putco.
“Back in the day women were not supposed to do these jobs. I wanted to challenge that stereotype. I became the first woman at Putco to qualify as a bus driver although I didn’t use the licence there,” she said. She quit her office administration job in 1993 after she was transferred to Evaton.
“It was too far for me,” she says.
For the next 13 years, the mother of three battled to find another job. She was hired as a driver by Metrobus, the City of Johannesburg’s public bus service, in 2005 after responding to a job advert in a newspaper. Fifteen other women were also interviewed.
“Most of them were young women. That made me very happy. It showed that given a chance, women can do any job. This job has been a blessing. I enjoy every single day.”
Mbatha is prepared to work beyond her 60th birthday next year.
“I will continue as long as Metrobus needs me. God has been very good to me and has endowed me with good health.”
She starts her the second leg of her shift – the journey back home –at 3pm. I board the bus near the Constitution Hill. It’s noisy inside but delightful, and Mbatha takes it in her stride. After all, this is her home – a mobile home – away from home. She knows most of the children by name. Her passengers feel safe in her company.
Karabo Molepo, 16, a Grade 10 pupil at Coronationville High School, has been riding MaMbatha’s bus for the past three years.
“She’s on time all the time. Her bus is the most reliable and it takes us closest to school.”
Her friend, Lesego Tshabalala, 13, says with Mbatha behind the steering wheel, the long commute from Protea Glen to Coronationville and back is an enjoyable experience. Pretty Mthimkulu, 14, interjects, saying: “MaMbatha treats us very well. She calls us by name. She’s the best.”
As we snake our way through the narrow streets of Protea North, Chiawelo and Mapetla to our final destination in Zondi, one by one the children thank her politely as they get off. One plants a kiss on her cheek.
“Have a great evening, mama. I’ll see you bright and early tomorrow,” she says.
By the time we approach Jabulani the noise has stopped. We drive into the depot at 5.03pm and the security guard records the mileage. We get into her car.
“I have a church meeting tonight,” she says. “I should get ready for that, but first I have to see the children.”
As we part ways, I’m left in no doubt that this is a woman of substance; a woman who deserves to be celebrated this Women’s Month.