Opinionista Zukiswa Pikoli 15 June 2018

42 years later, learners are still dying

There is no reason why children should have to use pit toilets at school.

In his speech at the launch of the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund in 1995, then-president Nelson Mandela began his speech with the following words:

There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children. We come from a past in which the lives of our children were assaulted and devastated in countless ways. It would be no exaggeration to speak of a national abuse of a generation by a society which it should have been able to trust.”

This is a clarion call that asserted that we are all duty bound to ensure the protection and dignity of our children particularly because of a history marred by their suffering.

On 11 September, 2007 the mother of Siyamthanda Mtunu (aged 6 and in Grade 1) was informed by pupils that her son was in the clinic because the walls of the school toilets had collapsed on him while at Dalasile Primary School in the Eastern Cape. Siyamthanda subsequently died after being transferred to Makiwane Hospital in Monti.

In March 2013, the school toilet walls collapsed onto Lister Magongwa (aged 7 in Grade 1). His injuries were so bad he died on the way to hospital. All the principal could do was give his father R50 to get back home from the hospital.

In 2014, five-year-old Michael Komape had been in Grade R for three days at Mahlodumela Primary in Limpopo when he left his classroom, fell into a dilapidated pit toilet and drowned. Since then the Komape family have been embroiled in civil litigation in order to attain justice for their lost son whose loss they continue to grieve and whose manner of death continues to haunt them.

In March 2018 SECTION27 was acting as amicus curiae (friend of the court) in Equal Education’s Norms and Standards case against the Minister of Basic Education. On the last day of the hearing as we were wrapping up, we got wind of news that another 5-year-old child, Lumka Mkhethwa, had fallen into a pit toilet at school in Mbizana, Eastern Cape and died. Incidentally we also happened to be with the Komape family when we got this news as they too were attending the Norms and Standards case. We stood outside the Bhisho High Court in disbelief at the news after having argued that the state needed to do their job of ensuring that learners are kept safe and alive in schools by adhering to the set norms and standards regulations.

Almost immediately President Cyril Ramaphosa, on hearing of the death of Lumka Mkhethwa, instructed the Minister of Basic Education to conduct an audit of school sanitation and present him with a costed implementation plan within three months. Tomorrow, June 16 marks exactly three months since the president instructed the minister to produce this plan.

Vicissitude, does not begin to describe the enormity of the moment as all at once the various strands of our Basic Education failings intersected and collided into each other. It seemed ludicrous that the state would have to be convinced to adopt a constitutionally mandated obligation that is at the core of their mandate.

The fact that poor African, rural children are dying at the negligence of the Department of Basic Education is not only shameful but a betrayal of the legacy of the pupil of 1976 and Nelson Mandela. It shows the state’s posture to be that of callousness, reinforcing that when you are black and poor the system does not recognise your right to life, dignity and equality.

Our government purports to care about the protection of pupils and their right to dignity, but where is the dignity in dying in a pit of human faeces or being found buried under collapsed toilet walls? Where is the dignity when the Department of Basic Education responsible for your death again stands up in a court of law and repeatedly flouts its constitutional obligations by trying to find loopholes to escape responsibility or accountability for not adhering to their own norms and standards. Where is the dignity when the department spends millions on lawyers’ fees defending the indefensible, rather than fixing toilets?

Let’s be clear, leaving young children face to face with dangerous and unhygienic toilets on a daily basis is a policy choice of government. There are resources available if we can find the will to respect our children and their rights to education.

According to the rapid audit report from the Department of Basic Education on Ramaphosa’s request in April, there are 5,779 schools with pit toilets and yet according to their own National Educational Infrastructure Management Statistics (NEIMS) report published in January 2018 there are 8,702. It seems highly unlikely that within a space of three months there would have been 2,923 pit toilets eradicated nationally. This begs the question that if there isn’t reliable and accurate information on the number of pit toilets what plan is to be presented to the president with a view to efficient and effective implementation?

According to the April rapid audit there are only 769 pit toilets in Limpopo yet the January NEIMS report shows that Limpopo has 2,524 pit toilets. SECTION27 has been conducting its own audit of a sample study of schools in Limpopo.

These schools confirm that the provincial department of education has not been in touch with them for the purposes of the presidential audit which seems odd. Of the 76 schools we’ve visited so far over 20 are reported to have dangerous pit toilets; 13 of those are primary schools. Are these more tragedies waiting to happen?

Our sample study also puts into question the accuracy of the figures of the April rapid audit as well as the genuine commitment towards meeting the directive of pit toilet eradication.

Section27 therefore calls on the Department of Basic Education and the Presidency to make this plan open for public comment not only because the matter is of such grave importance, but because in his maiden presidential speech the president made express mention of working particularly closely with civil society. A commitment we hope to see the realisation of in this instance.

As civil society organisations working in the basic education sector we would think it prudent to have been included in the audit and planning process. So far, our attempts at getting clarity and more information on this have proven unsuccessful. On this the 42nd anniversary of June 16, our government can and must do better for our children. DM

Zukiswa Pikoli is SECTION27 Communications Officer

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