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South Africa turning donkeys into mass transit | (KRT) PRETORIA, South Africa — Bringing public transport to the sticks is no easy mission. But Department of Transportation officials in South Africa's rural North West Province have come up with a breakthrough: the world's first standardized, wheelchair-accessible donkey cart.

Province officials, working in conjunction with South Africa's bureau of standards, have developed a donkey cart with reflectors, a canopy for cover and padded bench seats that are removable to accommodate wheelchairs or freight. The idea is to soon have fleets of government-sanctioned donkey carts carrying small children to distant schools, farmers and their produce to markets, and the sick to clinics, all at low cost and without creating a menace on the rutted tracks that pass for roads in the province's remote reaches.

"We realized in our rural areas there is no transport at all," said David Serapelo, coordinator of the province's new non-motorized public transportation program.

With children walking as far as 6 miles to school each day, he said, "We couldn't say, `Let's wait for some time until buses and taxis can operate.' That might be 20 years. So we looked at what people in our rural areas were using, and we decided as a department to do something to improve on that."

In most poor parts of the world, donkey carts - these days thrown together from packing crates, axles of wrecked cars, scrap metal, pickup truck beds and other leftovers - have been a part of life for centuries. Kenya uses them to distribute library books in rural areas. In Iraq donkey carts have even been turned into launch platforms for insurgents' rockets.

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But the carts rarely are safe or efficient. In South Africa, dozens of people are injured each year when carts fall apart or cars smash into them, particularly at night.

"When you are driving at night," an official said, "you don't see the donkeys, except for the eyes that reflect quite distinctly."

So, Serapelo and his staff decided an upgrade was in order, and in consultation with Standards South Africa, they developed a design.

"The current carts used by people don't have safety features. They're not comfortable," Serapelo said. "We wanted to provide mass transit that is comfortable and safe."

The new carts are in the prototype stage. They are designed to provide seating for up to eight and are to be pulled by a team of six donkeys, rather than the usual two or four. Key design features include prominent reflectors for safety and comfortable bench seating that can be removed to make room for cargo or wheelchairs.

The two-wheeled or four-wheeled carts also will have a canopy to provide protection from the region's blistering sun or from rain.

Officials hope to get the carts on the roads later this year. Provincial officials are looking for a suitable manufacturer and then will contract with a non-governmental organization to begin training and licensing drivers for the new rural mass transit district routes, Serapelo said.

Limpopo Province has adopted the North West design and is donating used government tires to the donkey cart effort, as well as promoting the use of sturdy harnesses made from old conveyor belts. Neighboring Botswana has shown interest in adopting the design, and there are hopes a new donkey-cart-building industry could spring up, creating much-needed jobs.

Serapelo, who also pioneered a recent program to provide North West province residents with thousands of free bicycles, is just happy that children will have something other than their own tired feet to carry them to school and back.

"It's our job to make sure there is mobility," he said. "And sometimes 10 kilometers is too far to ride a bike if you are a small child."

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© 2004, Chicago Tribune Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services