Defend Truth


Pit latrines and lack of access to clean water at schools is a national outrage


Dr Chris Jones is Chief researcher in the Department of Systematic Theology and Ecclesiology, and also head of the Unit for Moral Leadership at Stellenbosch University

There are 380 schools in South Africa with no water. There are a further 3,392 schools that still use pit latrines, affecting 34,489 teachers and 1,042,698 learners. The Western Cape is the only province where no schools have pit latrines and all schools have a water supply.

The South African Government declared the first Saturday of November as National Children’s Day. Calling attention to the challenges our children face is important, especially if we consider Section 28 of the Bill of Rights in our Constitution which states that “every child has the right to basic nutrition, shelter, health care and social services, as well as the right to be protected from maltreatment, neglect, abuse or degradation”. One can also add to this the right to basic education as stipulated in Section 29.

Although government has made strides to provide relevant, effective, responsive, inclusive, and sustainable teaching and learning since 1994, there are still certain serious shortfalls especially regarding the infrastructure of many public schools.

In my reflection on children in commemoration of the abovementioned day, I would like to focus on the more than one million learners in our schools who still use pit latrines, and almost 150,000 children who are in schools with no water.

During the second quarter of 2021, the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) requested reports on water and sanitation at schools from each of the Provincial Departments of Education (PDEs).

The commission in particular requested information on the types and sources of sanitation at these schools. According to the SAHRC, responses were received from 16,921 schools across the nine provinces. The reports received from all the provinces account for 74% of all schools in South Africa.

As I was reading through this July 2021 report, I was shocked to see how many schools do not have sanitation facilities and how many schools, staff and learners still use pit latrines as their primary form of ablution facilities.

Gauteng, North West and KwaZulu-Natal reported only on schools that have historically had water and sanitation challenges. The Eastern Cape, Free State, Limpopo, Mpumalanga, Northern Cape, and the Western Cape provided information on all public schools in their provinces.

In the Eastern Cape, almost half (44%) of the schools still use pit latrines as their primary ablution facility. A further 31% use ventilated pit latrines, while 199 schools in the province do not have any sanitation facility at the school. Add to this the 121 schools without any water supply, and it becomes clear how dire the situation is for the 717,192 learners and 27,711 teachers in these schools.  

In the Free State 10 schools do not have water and five of these schools do not have any form of sanitation facility. Seventy-seven per cent of schools in the province are serviced by their respective municipalities with water; 1% have access to Enviro-loos — which are waterless systems that work through organic decomposition and dehydration, providing a safe non-polluting solution for sanitation; 15% to septic tanks; and 6% to ventilated improved pit latrines.

In Gauteng, 223 schools have water and sanitation challenges. These schools are mainly serviced by mobile water tankers, and they use septic tanks and chemical toilets for ablutions.

In KwaZulu-Natal, 79% of schools are primarily reliant on pit latrines and ventilated pit latrines for ablutions. This affects 383,677 learners and 9,609 teachers.

In Limpopo, 78% of schools reported that boreholes are their primary source of clean water with 127 schools having either no water or relying on pit toilets which affect 49,922 learners and 1,329 teachers.

In Mpumalanga, 29,529 learners and 885 teachers find themselves in schools that either have no water or are primarily reliant on pit toilets.

In the Northern Cape, 55% of schools rely on municipal flush toilets for their sanitation needs, while the remaining schools use septic tanks (33%), Enviro-loos (8%), and ventilated improved pit latrines (4%). In schools where these Enviro-loos were not maintained by the respective education departments, the schools were forced to go back to pit toilets again.  

In North West 29,407 learners and 985 teachers are at schools that either have no water or are primarily reliant on pit toilets, while in the Western Cape there are no schools without water or using pit latrines.

These statistics imply that there are currently 380 schools in the country with no water, affecting 5,331 teachers and 144,436 learners. There are a further 3,392 schools that still use pit latrines, affecting 34,489 teachers and 1,042,698 learners.

This appalling situation will have to be addressed much more urgently in order to restore and respect the human dignity of these teachers and learners, and to achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals 4 and 6 which envision education and water and sanitation for all.  

These pit toilets are not only a health hazard, but are also unsafe, degrading, and unlawful. Furthermore, South African courts have repeatedly said that the connections between pit toilets and learners’ ability to study should not be understated.

The state, according to the South African Schools Act (1996), should establish and maintain minimum uniform norms and standards for public school infrastructure which include “sufficient water supply” and “sanitation facilities that are easily accessible to all learners and educators” and “provide privacy and security, promote health and hygiene standards, comply with all relevant laws and are maintained in good working order”.

This should be central to the Department of Basic Education’s policy and one of its key priorities.

Referring to schools, Africa Check pointed out in 2019 that “hundreds of children have drowned in pit latrines”, and that “tragic stories of young children falling into pit latrines and drowning in excrement” at schools have made headlines in our country.

Not even the Sanitation Appropriate for Education (Safe) initiative, launched by President Cyril Ramaphosa in 2018 to do away with pit latrines in schools could prevent these tragedies.

In 2020, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga said that a government infrastructure programme has provided “sanitation solutions” at 68 schools. Sanitation issues at a further almost 1,000 schools have also been addressed by PDEs and through other partnerships.

Motshekga added that her department plans to eradicate pit latrines by March 2022, depending on the availability of funding. However, during June 2020 the budget for education infrastructure was cut by R2-billion due to Covid-19. Julia Chaskalson and Boitumelo Masipa from Section27 pointed out that “R600-million of this was transferred to the School Infrastructure Backlog Grant (SIBG) to pay for temporary access to water and sanitation in schools” with the SIBG “cut by a further R60-million”.

On a day such as National Children’s Day, the efforts of government in this respect should be appreciated. But March 2022 is just around the corner. If the Basic Department of Education together with PDEs and other relevant governmental departments do not uphold the minister’s promise in this regard without valid reasons, there should be a national outrage to hold them accountable, even if it means taking the responsible people to court.

We owe our children an education in an environment that is safe and conducive to learning. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Rob Dyer says:

    Chris, if you consulted anyone who has a passing knowledge of rural water and sanitation, you would know that a well designed ventilated pit toilet is a safe and appropriate form of sanitation for under-resourced rural schools. Flushing toilets will lead to disaster, since neither education departments nor schools have the ability to maintain isolated water systems. Result – stinking blocked toilets. From your report, enviro-loos fair little better.

  • Jacques Labuschagne says:

    Agree with Rob. Water scarcity does not allow waterborne toilets for all schools and informal settlements when proper sewage treatment is widely non-existent. We probably need to reduce and replace waterborne toilets.

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