South Africa


Suffer the Children: There can be no excuses any more for pit toilets

Suffer the Children: There can be no excuses any more for pit toilets

Monday 19 November is World Toilet Day 2018 and our government should be asking some deep questions of itself.

There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”

Nelson Mandela, 8 May 1995

The government is capable of hosting peace summits in Madiba’s name in New York; it can send big delegations to China; build state-of-the-art football stadiums; organise numerous summits and commissions; find billions to bail out national carrier SAA and power utility Eskom; make sure every Cabinet Minister’s security needs are catered for.

All this and much more it can do. But it says it is not capable of building hygienic and safe toilets for the millions of children who attend our public schools.

President Cyril Ramaphosa and his Cabinet know that children like Michael Komape and Lumka Mkhethwa have drowned in pit toilets, that others have only narrowly escaped death while others have been permanently injured.

A ground pit latrine at Limpopo’s Utjane Primary School that has since been gated off due to the immediate danger it posed to learners. Photo taken July 2018, by Adam Yates

Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga knows that every day when tens of thousands of school children go to the toilet they face flies, snakes and insects, perch above stinking pits, breathe in foul air and smell, stare at the dirt and then brush the stink off their clothes as they go back to classrooms.

But all her department can offer is excuses as to why it can’t urgently resolve this most basic of problems. Some of the reasons for this failure are not that hard to uncover:

  • Education researcher Nic Spaull has shown that spending per learner on basic education has been falling for 10 years. This is resulting in cuts to school funding of 15% in poorer provinces such as KwaZulu-Natal;
  • Funding for the education infrastructure grant has been reduced by R7.2-billion over three years. Rural provinces are completely reliant on this grant to pay for school infrastructure, not only upgrades and additions, but maintenance. It makes it even more difficult for our government to comply with its own minimum norms and standards for school infrastructure; and

  • The Accelerated Schools Infrastructure Development Initiative (ASIDI) returned billions of rands unspent year after year.

These spending cuts make a mockery of President Ramaphosa’s order to Motshekga in March “to conduct an audit of all learning facilities with unsafe structures, especially unsafe ablution facilities, within a month and to present him with a plan to rectify the challenges, as an emergency interim measure while rolling out proper infrastructure, within three months”. Six months have now passed and, as a report to be launched by SECTION27 later today shows, the dangerous toilets still stand.

It is time the basic education departments, national and provincial, were called to account. As an example look at what is happening in provinces such as Limpopo.

In April in the Michael Komape damages case Judge J Muller declared that “the flagrant violation of [children’s] rights cannot be allowed to continue without remedial steps being taken to enforce, protect and prevent future encroachment of the rights of learners protected in the Bill of Rights.”

He therefore ordered the Limpopo Education department to:

  • supply and install at each rural school currently equipped with pit latrines a sufficient number of toilets for each school for the use of children which are easily accessible, secure and safe and which provide privacy and promote health and hygiene based on an assessment of the most suitable safe and hygienic sanitation technology.

He also ordered the department to furnish the following information:

  • A list containing the names and location of all the schools in rural areas with pit toilets for use by the learners;

  • The estimated period required to replace all the current pit toilets at schools so identified; and

  • a detailed programme developed by the relevant experts based for the installation of the toilets on an assessment made in respect of the suitable sanitation technology requirements of each school, inclusive of a proposed date (and reasons for the proposed date) for the commencement of the work referred to.

The Limpopo education department’s response, in an affidavit filed on 30 August 2018, was that it can’t afford to. It says it doesn’t have enough money and can only start replacing pit toilets in many districts in 2026.

James and Rosina Komape and their eldest daughter Lydia sit in the Limpopo High Court on the first day of the case in November 2017. Archive photo: Ciaran Ryan

Then to add insult to injury the Limpopo government doesn’t even mention the president’s #Sanitation Appropriate For Education (Safe) initiative in its response to the court. Nonetheless, as if anticipating some more money for nothing, in their response to the court they have inexplicably doubled the cost of constructing toilets from R50,000 to R100,000 a seat.

Yet when SECTION27 analysed the Limpopo Education department’s budget we found that in the 2017/18 financial year:

  • Poor planning caused it to miss out on R133-million of education infrastructure grant incentive funds from National Treasury;

  • R192-million was recorded as wasteful expenditure;

  • R950-million was spent irregularly; and

  • There was a net underspend of R91.5-million on its infrastructure development programme over the past two years.

This makes you worry about the safety of funds announced by the President and Minister of Finance as part of the “stimulus package” to “ensure the completion of 1,100 school sanitation projects in the current financial year”.

Bail out the education system! Bail out pit toilets!

President Ramaphosa and the good men and women in our government need to take corruption and self-interest by politicians and public servants in the education department as seriously as they do in SAA, the SA Revenue Service or Eskom.

We appreciate that our country faces serious fiscal constraints, yet underfunding, corruption and mismanagement in our basic education sector will have prolonged adverse effects on our constitutional democracy. This failure to build school toilets is a symptom of a bigger problem — the loss of empathy, urgency and accountability. It is state failure. It is a failure to take the Constitution seriously.

One of the greatest and most lasting contributions of Madiba was signing a Constitution which gave children a basket of immediately realisable rights, including to basic education, basic health care services and basic nutrition.

But in a year when we have celebrated Madiba’s 100th birthday we also kept quiet about our government’s failures towards that part of the population he felt most passionately about – our children. The urgent implementation of a plan that restores dignity and hope to so many schools before Madiba’s 101st birthday would be proof that they do not take his name in vain. DM

SECTION27 will launch its audit and report on school toilets in Limpopo this evening at 5pm at the Women’s Jail, Constitution Hill. For further information contact Zuki Pikoli [email protected] or 011-3564100.


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