Sunday 20 January marked five years since the untimely and tragic passing of Michael Komape, the first reported victim of unsafe school sanitation in our basic education system. He would have turned 10 years old this year.
His family to this day still awaits acceptance of responsibility and reparations from the Department of Basic Education for their failure to provide decent sanitation and which the High Court agreed resulted in Michael’s death.
The Komape trial concluded in February 2018 and judgment found against granting the family most of the damages claim that they sought – save for medical and funeral expenses – citing that what had occurred was a matter concerning all children within the Basic Education system and was not about individual family reparations. An assertion most absurd in that the granting of a damages claim for the family acknowledging their loss as well as judgment affirming the rights of all learners in the Education system would not have been mutually exclusive. Instead, the court granted a structural order requiring the department to provide adequate and safe sanitation for learners in the Limpopo.
Since Michael’s death, there have been other reported incidents of learners falling into dilapidated pits toilets or having the walls of toilet cubicles collapse on them as a result of inadequate and unsafe toilet infrastructure. The death of five-year-old Lumka Mketwa through a similar fate in March 2018 in the Eastern Cape prompted the department to conduct “audits” called for by President Ramaphosa. On 14 August 2018 the well-known Sanitation Appropriate for Education (SAFE) Initiative was launched jointly by President Ramaphosa and the Department. While the campaign is described as one to “provide safe sanitation facilities for all learners and in the process, help to restore their dignity” a glaring concern is the discrepancy between the data released at the SAFE initiative launched against the data in the department’s affidavit filed in the high court pursuant to the structural order in the Komape case. This casts serious doubt over the accuracy and reliability of the data. Begging the question; if the department does not know how big the problem is, how can they begin to find a solution for it with the necessary budgetary considerations.
Historically, rural schools like Michael’s consisted largely of black communities and saw deliberate and unequal allocation of resources. This apartheid hangover remains more than 20 years later leaving behind a bitter pallet on those that are the most vulnerable. The dilapidated state of infrastructure in most rural schools not only impacts on the safety of the learners, but it also affects their dignity, and their right to education. While acknowledging the problem is part of the solution, it appears the department is in a vicious cycle of acknowledging that there is a problem with school infrastructure, promising to fix it then invariably failing to fix it due to cited budgetary constraints. The problem, however, is more that it is the absence of reliable data accompanied by a reasonable plan and a proper budget.
(See a special video report, Deadly pit toilets and the right to basic education, by Daily Maverick here )
Last year we traversed the districts of Limpopo in the pursuit of ascertaining a true reflection of the state of sanitation in the province. We produced a report on the state of sanitation that reflects the squalid and dangerous state of our learners’ toilets who at such a tender age are subjected to accepting the injustice and indignity of using ablution facilities that we ourselves would never allow our children to use. The acceptance of the unacceptable is what has brought the country to a point of where the poor and rural in our country are subjected to these dangerous structures.
It is indeed a sore on our society’s conscience that the only time the plight of the poor, particularly black children, is brought up and spotlighted is within the throes of political grandstanding. Our constitution will remain inaccessible for as long as its assumed guardians continue to devalue and ignore the rights it guarantees all its citizens in favour of political gain.
The department’s conduct has violated several of the Komape family’s constitutional rights chief amongst them the right to dignity and the right to family life, and as such need to take responsibility accordingly. What has become more and more apparent in our interaction with the Komape case is that one’s humanity is only recognised at a premium.
Oxfam recently released a report on the levels of inequality in South Africa highlighting that the most marked impact of this is reflected in our health and education systems. According to the report, inequality between the rich and the poor translates into inequality in accessing education and health. Poor people have fewer educational opportunities and also live significantly shorter lives. Of course, there is no better evidence of this than the Komape case where Michael was attending a no fee-paying school with ailing infrastructure that ultimately led to his untimely death. Michael Komape’s life was cut short and his potential never even explored, our country’s growing inequality made sure of this.
It has been reported that President Cyril Ramaphosa will announce during the delivery of the state of the nation address a “major overhaul of the country’s education system” in preparation for the fourth industrial revolution. As circumspect as this may be it is difficult to comprehend how this will be done if it is apparent that the department struggles to provide our children with their basic constitutional rights – safe infrastructure.
However, perhaps some don’t see a problem with learners with tablets sitting on a pit latrine. DM
Zukiswa Pikoli is Communications Officer and Sheniece Linderboom is Education Attorney of Section27.
"We are surrounded by story." ~ Alice McDermott