No answers for family of four-year-old girl found dead in school pit toilet
On 8 March, four-year-old Langalam Viki seemingly fell into a pit toilet at her school in Vaalbank in the Eastern Cape and drowned. While the case is still under investigation, the little girl’s death has again raised the question of why these toilets still exist at schools in the province after they were declared illegal years ago.
Two weeks after Langalam Viki’s tragic drowning in a pit latrine at her school, her family is still looking for answers.
Four-year-old Langalam died on 7 March at the Mcwangelel Junior Secondary School in the Vaalbank area in the Eastern Cape.
Her grandfather, Mbuzakubani Matyobe, said the family began looking for her when she did not arrive home from school with the other children.
“The principal was informed, and the search for her started late on Monday. On Tuesday, we woke up and went to the school… where her lifeless body was discovered in the pit latrine,” he said.
Matyobe said this was the first time someone had fallen into a toilet in the village.
“We also attended that school and no one ever fell in… and back then, the toilet was worse than what it is now.”
He said that, according to their information, Langalam was playing with her friends after school and when the scholar transport arrived, they went to the vehicles.
“She turned back, saying she had left some paper in the toilets. What surprises us is that she was still wearing her trousers when she was found,” Matyobe said.
“If there was foul play, the person who did this will be revealed,” he said.
Matyobe said Langalam was a loving, caring and energetic child.
“She loved asking questions and would never let you go until she got what she wanted. She would make those around her laugh and be happy,” he said.
Langalam’s mother, Nangamso Viki, said the pit toilet should have been locked.
“After school, all toilets should be locked and the foundation phase teachers should accompany the children to their transport.”
After the incident, the school principal, members of the school governing body (SGB), teachers and department of education officials from the Chris Hani district held a small service at the family’s home.
School principal Mawethu Lubala said on Monday that he was the last person to leave the school.
“It was when I was driving to my home when I met Nande and other children informing me that Langalam did not come home. I phoned the SGB and we all looked for the child. We looked in the toilets but could not see her. One of the children said Langalam had gone to a relative in the other village,” he said.
“One of the children told us that as they were about to get into the taxi Langalam went back to look for her paper. Later, the police were called and her body was found in the pit latrine.”
SGB chairperson Mandla Kuku thanked the community and the teachers who helped search for Langalam.
“The community also helped when the toilets were locked… one of the community members helped open at the back of the toilets… that is when we noticed Langalam’s shoes and her body was recovered,” Kuku said.
Pit toilet deaths
Jane Borman from Equal Education said neither the national Department of Basic Education (DBE) nor the provincial education departments had released statistics on deaths related to learners drowning in pit toilets.
“However, civil society organisations such as ourselves and Section27 have been monitoring and commenting on the issue over the years. Equal Education intensified its sanitation advocacy campaign, drawing public attention to the dangers of pit toilets at schools after the death of four-year-old Michael Komape, who tragically drowned in a pit toilet at his school in 2014.”
Read more in Daily Maverick: Sustainable school sanitation: We need more than quick fixes and empty promises
In 2018, SECTION27 wrote an open letter to President Cyril Ramaphosa, documenting cases where learners died or were injured while using a pit toilet at school.
“The letter relays that, in 2016, a five-year-old boy was reported to have been severely injured after falling into a pit toilet at school in the North West province; a seven-year-old boy in Limpopo died after the walls of a school toilet collapsed on him in 2013, and a six-year-old boy from the Eastern Cape died in 2007 after the walls of a school toilet collapsed on him.
“There is also the tragic death of five-year-old Lumka Mketwa from the Eastern Cape, who drowned after falling into a pit toilet at her school.”
Borman said while there is currently a police investigation under way to determine the cause of Langalam Viki’s death, the incident – regardless of the outcome – is a stark reminder that these appalling and dangerous structures are still at schools.
“These are only those we know of publicly, and there are likely other cases similar to that of Michael Komape and Lumka Mketwa that we do not know about.
“The latest available information from the DBE is from the National Education Infrastructure Management System, released in April 2021 (NEIMS 2021). Equal Education is currently putting together an application in terms of the Promotion of Access to Information Act for the most recent NEIMS data,” she added.
“The 2021 NEIMS show that currently 2,130 schools still have plain pit toilets as their only form of sanitation. The Department of Basic Education data conflict with the findings of a report by the South African Human Rights Commission which paints a much more dire picture.
“For example, in the Eastern Cape, the NEIMS states that 1,473 schools have plain pit toilets, and no schools are without some form of sanitation. “However, the SAHRC report states that their independent analysis found 2,236 schools (about 44%) rely on pit toilets in the Eastern Cape. A further 199 schools in the province have no sanitation facilities at all.
“Whatever the exact statistic is, the Minimum Uniform Norms and Standards for Public School Infrastructure banned plain pit toilets when it came into effect in 2013.
“Education departments had until 2016 to ensure that no learner had to suffer the indignity and safety risk of having to use a pit toilet. It is clear from this incident and previous sanitation-related tragedies that the department and provincial education departments have completely failed in delivering their legal and moral responsibilities towards learners,” said Borman.
“While this case is still under investigation by the police, the mere connection of a pit toilet to the tragedy is concerning. The truth is that there should not be a single plain pit toilet at any school, as these structures are deemed illegal.
‘Lack of political will’
“These dangerous so-called sanitation facilities are not only a violation of learners’ enjoyment of quality schooling, but it is also a clear sign of the government’s inability to provide even the most basic universal school infrastructure for learners,” she said.
“For us, two major things explain the government’s consistent failures to deliver adequate and safe sanitation infrastructure: a lack of political will and consistent problems with how the education departments spend the money allocated to them.
“The sector, from the national department to the school level, suffers from endemic underspending, irregular expenditure, and fruitless and wasteful expenditure. This is part of a bigger national problem facing the South African government. However, the sector is particularly plagued by these spending issues.
“The Eastern Cape, where this incident occurred, recently forfeited R100-million in infrastructure grant funding due to its inability to spend the money. Incidents such as this, unfortunately, reveal how devastatingly costly the government’s poor planning can be.
“It bears repeating that the continued use of pit toilets at schools is not just a violation of learners’ right to quality basic education but also has a severe effect on their right to dignity, equality, health and safety.
“Education departments and government as a whole cannot merely pay lip service to protect our learners and their futures. We need to see that they are able and willing to use the money and resources that they have at their disposal to put an end to this shameful chapter in South Africa’s schooling system,” said Borman.
On Tuesday, the Viki family was visited by a delegation from the Democratic Alliance, including party leader John Steenhuisen, Eastern Cape leader Andrew Whitfield and DA Shadow Minister for Basic Education, Baxolile Nodada.
Speaking with the family, Steenhuisen said they would be starting litigation proceedings to find the quickest and most effective means to instruct provincial governments to erect proper sanitation facilities for all school children as a fundamental human right.
“The litigation will be against education departments across the country, excluding Limpopo, where there is an existing judgment (in the Komape case) handed down in 2021. We want to bring a similar action in all the provinces… there must be an audit of all school infrastructure,” he said.
“Given the immense interest in achieving this goal from all sectors of society, we will engage with civil society organisations, public advocacy groups and non-governmental organisations working in the education space to put together a strong case,” Steenhuisen said.
The SA Human Rights Commission has promised to take broader legal action but its papers have, to date, not been filed.
The DA’S provincial spokesperson for education, Edmund van Vuuren, said the Eastern Cape Education Department had sent back a total of R1.2-billion in unspent infrastructure grants since the 2018/19 financial year.
“These funds could have eradicated all pit latrines and built hundreds of new classrooms at schools in the Eastern Cape.”
He has requested the education committee in the provincial legislature to call a meeting with MEC Fundile Gade and his senior officials to account for their failure to eradicate pit latrines at schools.
The spokesperson for the Eastern Cape Department of Education, Malibongwe Mtima, was not available for comment. DM/MC