HEALTH & SAFETY CAMPAIGN
Nonprofit organisation is leading the charge to flush pit latrines out of South African schools
Breadline Africa, in partnership with investment banker Mark Barnes, is raising R156-million to replace dangerous pit toilets at 240 schools in KwaZulu-Natal and Eastern Cape.
If there is one thing all South Africans can agree on, it’s that the scourge of pit toilets in schools needs to be eliminated. Across the country, these outdated and dangerous facilities continue to put the health and safety of learners at risk.
The nonprofit organisation Breadline Africa, in partnership with South African investment banker Mark Barnes, is tackling the problem head-on with a campaign to raise R156-million to replace 4,000 pit toilets at 240 schools in KwaZulu-Natal and Eastern Cape.
Since March this year, thanks to their efforts, pit toilets at two KZN schools have been replaced with low-flush facilities.
“Our campaign is raising R156-million. It’s a lot of money, but it’s nothing in the context of the difference it can make in how people feel about themselves,” said Barnes, who has pledged support for the campaign and is leading its corporate fundraising.
“What we need here is a universal self-worth that is absent in our country … and if we get that, then, suddenly, people aren’t just in school to get a qualification – they’re there to learn. We get to [a] higher level of meaning and purpose when the basics are looked after.”
The partnership between Barnes and Breadline Africa came about in the wake of the tragic death of Langalam Viki, a four-year-old in Eastern Cape who was reported to have drowned in a school pit toilet in early March.
The incident sparked widespread outrage about the slow progress in eliminating pit toilets from schools.
“I think we were all prompted into action by the unnecessary death of yet another child,” said Breadline Africa CEO Marion Wagner. “Our primary focus is the unsafe pit toilets and making sure that … those pit toilets are gone.”
Breadline Africa, which has been providing education infrastructure to disadvantaged communities since it was founded in 1993, is contributing R7-million to the campaign from its annual infrastructure budget.
Wagner told Daily Maverick that the nonprofit’s priorities included restoring dignity and improving school attendance by learners and staff.
In some cases, she said, it was not only the pit toilets that were dangerous, but also the unstable structures they were housed in.
“One of the reasons that community members don’t want to send their children to schools is because of the unsafe pit toilet.
“The feedback that we’ve had from parents has been phenomenal. That relief – that I know my child is safe, or I know that my child can have privacy when they go to the toilet – is absolutely huge,” she said.
‘Like you were in prison’
The two KwaZulu-Natal schools that have benefited from the campaign are Umsunduze Primary and Insuze-Gcwensa Primary. Both reported that the construction of the new toilets took about two weeks.
The low-flush facilities are outfitted with a 60-litre water tank – filled from nearby water tanks or a standing water supply – with each flush using two litres of water, according to Wagner. Breadline Africa has secured a five-year maintenance contract with the supplier, while also providing the schools with an initial package of cleaning materials.
Umsunduze Primary School, a quintile 3 institution, is 110 years old. Principal Sthokozo Ndlovu said the 18 low-flush toilets that Breadline Africa installed at the school in June had led to major improvements in hygiene and comfort.
“When you are experiencing a thing, you don’t really realise that it is bringing about challenges, difficulties, because you have no other option.
“Once you have a second option, it’s only then you realise that … it was like you were in prison,” he said of the pit toilets.
“All sorts of bacteria were in those pit toilets, which can bring about some diseases.”
The new bathroom was fitted with sinks and taps. Previously, learners needed to go elsewhere to wash their hands and many did not bother, he added.
“Now it’s all about neatness [and] hygiene. [It’s] user-friendly … and there’s no stress when thinking of visiting the place,” he said.
The new toilet facilities at Insuze-Gcwensa Primary School, a quintile 2 institution, were launched on 11 September.
Speaking to Daily Maverick on the day of the launch, principal Thabisile Zwane said the 15 toilets and four urinals were a great improvement for staff and pupils.
“It will definitely improve [things]. Looking at the excitement that was [coming from] the parents, the learners … I could foresee [from] the excitement that the learners’ attendance will improve… Even parents, maybe they are planning to bring more kids to the same school,” she said.
“The pit toilets in South Africa are a health hazard – we cannot shy away from that. Even the [Basic Education] Department and the government itself are on a mission to do away with pit toilets.
“What Breadline [Africa] is doing and has done for my school is something that everyone is looking forward to.”
A catalyst for others
Breadline Africa aims to replace the pit toilets at six schools by the end of the year, according to Wagner. This target may increase in 2024 if the campaign gets enough corporate sponsorship.
“What we’re seeing is there’s a lot more than just 240 schools [needing new toilet facilities] out there, and if we get the money and the support from corporates and like-minded individuals, we’ll just keep going,” she said.
Barnes hopes the campaign will “break the back” of the pit toilet problem, serving as a catalyst for others to take action and eliminate unsafe facilities.
“If you think about the country at large, it’s going to take some effort and some extraordinary togetherness to solve things, but it doesn’t take that much effort or that much money to create the prospect of dignity,” he said.
“Our hope is that we will create sufficient momentum for people to have moved up the … ladder to do it themselves.” DM
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.