Maverick Citizen

Maverick Citizen Op-Ed

Sanitation crisis: One Limpopo school scores a critical but temporary victory

Temporary sanitation facilities at Kharivha Primary School. (Photo: section27.org / Wikipedia)

Learners at Kharivha Primary, a small school in Vhembe, Limpopo, were able to return to school on Monday 8 June – along with others across the country – after urgent intervention from the public interest law centre, SECTION27.

The Limpopo Department of Education (LDoE) delivered four temporary toilets, two water tanks, masks and an infrared thermometer to Kharivha Primary School on Sunday 7 June, after SECTION27 threatened legal action over the lack of adequate sanitation and protective equipment at the school. 

A history of sanitation challenges

Kharivha has a sordid history when it comes to sanitation infrastructure. The school, in the village of Ndovhada, has no running water on the property. Four Enviro Loos were built for the school in 1989. Enviro Loos are considered useful in areas where there is no reliable piped water source – they are ‘dry’ or ‘waterless’ toilets which break down waste through dehydration and organic decomposition. Although these toilets are ecologically sustainable, they require regular maintenance to prevent the build-up of waste.

By 2000, the school governing body (SGB) had to replace the Enviro Loos because they were falling apart and had reached their capacity to hold waste. The then-SGB built two corrugated iron pit toilets to replace the Enviro Loos. While plain pit toilets like these are now prohibited in terms of the regulations relating to the minimum norms and standards for school infrastructure, the Enviro Loo toilets were in such poor condition that learners and educators have opted to use the undignified, unlawful, plain pit toilets for the past 20 years. 

Plain pit toilets like those at Kharivha are unlawful because they are unsafe and responsible for the tragic deaths of learners including Michael Komape, Lumka Mkethwa, Oratilwe Dilwane and Siyamthanda Mtunu. 

Sanitation concerns in light of Covid-19

Flash forward to the Covid-19 crisis. Schools were closed on 18 March 2020, and the Department of Basic Education (DBE) began making promises about rolling out sanitation safe enough for the phased reopening of schools. The DBE promised on numerous occasions to deliver mobile toilets to schools reliant on pit toilets, and water tankers to schools without reliable access to water.

During the week of 18 May, in preparation for the reopening of the school, the SGB was told that the corrugated iron pit toilets would need to be demolished and that, should new toilets need to be built, this should be communicated to the circuit manager. The SGB was also informed that the money for the new toilets would be used from the school’s minimum norms and standards funding. The problem with this is that building costs should not come from the school’s allocation – it’s the responsibility of the LDoE.

With the corrugated iron pit toilets rightfully demolished, Kharivha’s only ablution facilities were the dilapidated and unsafe Enviro Loos. With the limited resources available to the school, Kharivha opted to build new cement brick pit toilets. Although these toilets are also unlawful, it was all that the school could afford without immediate funding from either the national or provincial education departments.

Between 29 May and 5 June, SECTION27 wrote to the DBE and the LDoE three times, alerting them to the community’s grave concerns about learners going back to Kharivha without safe sanitation infrastructure. By the DBE’s originally proposed reopening date of 1 June, no mobile toilets, water tankers or PPE for learners had been delivered to Kharivha. SECTION27 stepped in and threatened the LDoE with an urgent court application.

Finally, to the community’s relief, the DBE and LDoE honoured their commitments to deliver sanitation infrastructure and requisite PPE to the school. Kharivha SGB member Dzhombe Naledzani Eulender said to SECTION27: “For a long time Kharivha Primary School was without masks for learners and tanks for water… perhaps if it wasn’t for [SECTION27] we wouldn’t be having these things that we need.”

Eulender confirmed that on 4 June, two water tanks were delivered to the school, and the next day four mobile ‘ventilated improved pit’ or ‘VIP’ toilets were dropped off at the school. The school also received an infrared thermometer for Covid-19 screening, and masks for learners. By 7 June, SECTION27 had received feedback from the SGB that the new water tankers had been successfully connected to a nearby water pipe. 

This is a victory for the learners and staff at Kharivha, who were rightly concerned that returning to school would not be safe in the context of Covid-19. Although the ‘just-in-time’ delivery mantra of the DBE may have caused anxiety to the school community, we are ultimately pleased with the cooperation of the education authorities and the fulfilment of their commitment to have schools ready to reopen by 8 June.

At a media briefing on 8 June, Minister for Basic Education, Angie Motshekga, said 95% of schools were compliant with Covid-19 safety and hygiene standard operating procedures, and therefore ready to be reopened.

Schooling has, for the large part, effectively resumed across the country – including at schools which have, until this point, lacked access to water and have relied on unlawful and unsafe pit toilets. The history of school sanitation in the country is a complex one, and the strides taken to resolve them by the DBE and provincial education departments in this particularly challenging period are to be commended. 

Long-term solutions necessary for historical problems with sanitation

The story of Kharivha demonstrates that sanitation infrastructure at schools is a long-term issue that cannot be solved solely with a quick fix. Sanitation infrastructure needs to be maintained and upgraded regularly. In the case of Kharivha, there is a reservoir a few hundred meters away from the school, and all that is needed to make the recent water connection permanent is a letter from the school to the Department of Water and Sanitation, and a dash of political will.

The DBE should not view the delivery of mobile toilets and water tanks to schools as a long-term solution to the sanitation crisis in South African schools – instead, the roll-out is a necessary but ultimately temporary intervention in the face of an emergency. 

This speaks to the larger issue surrounding the funding of sanitation at schools, which may be exacerbated by the Covid-19 disaster. The DBE and LDoE have repeatedly claimed that resources are spread too thin to tackle school sanitation concerns. SECTION27 has shown this to be disingenuous given the endemic presence of irregular expenditure, underspending and financial mismanagement by provincial education departments. 

Solving the sanitation crisis in schools will need more than temporary quick-fixes. It will take substantial funding, for a start. But real spend on school infrastructure, per learner, has decreased over the past few years. Furthermore, the DBE is not eligible for any emergency funding during the Covid-19 crisis. In fact, it has had to cut its budgets in both the education infrastructure grant and the operational allocation to provinces in order to shift funds to the Covid-19 response. Both of these sources of funding are used by schools to provide water and sanitation infrastructure. 

While difficult decisions will have to be made about funding during the pandemic, we argue that these choices cannot come at the expense of long-term solutions to a crisis that predates the virus. DM/MC

Sheniece Linderboom is an attorney in the Basic Education Rights programme at SECTION27. Julia Chaskalson is a Communications Officer at SECTION27.

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