On most days I struggle to take in news of senseless violence and avoidable trauma. I need to steel myself first, because when I feel deeply I’m in danger of dissolving into a puddle of tears. I therefore need to be prepared for really bad news.
The death of Langalam Viki, the four-year-old Grade R learner who died in a pit toilet at school in the Eastern Cape town of Glen Grey last week, is an example of such bad news.
“Why would she choose a toilet that she is not familiar with?” was the response from the Eastern Cape Department of Basic Education in a callous attempt to explain that Langalam had been found in a pit toilet meant for older learners.
My question is: why are there still dangerous pit toilets in schools in 2023 and, in light of this, why would a four-year-old be unaccompanied, raising further questions of dereliction of duty by teachers?
Are public, no-fee-paying schools now where we take our children to die at the callous hands of a Department of Basic Education and its officials who assume no responsibility for the deaths of children left in their charge, simply because they are poor and black?
I don’t even remember seeing or hearing a statement by Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga on this egregious incident. Not even Amnesty International pointing out that Langalam’s death “comes a week after the Department of Basic Education … missed yet another deadline to eradicate all illegal plain pit toilets from schools” could coax a response.
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What is even more incredible is that in 2018 President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the Sanitation Appropriate for Education initiative to eradicate all pit toilets in schools following legal action against the Department of Basic Education in the Michael Komape case.
That case rocked the country to its core, as it was the first time South Africans had heard of a child falling into a pit toilet and dying from drowning in human faeces.
What this shows is that there is no real investment or assumed worth of children in no-fee-paying schools because not only are our literacy and comprehension rates dismal, but our retention rates are also bad. And yet I don’t get that there is a sense of urgency about this. Our own government is literally robbing our children of their right to life, with very few ordinary South Africans and a handful of determined civil society organisations raising the alarm and drawing a line in the sand to say, “No more! It stops here!”
What would demonstrate a commitment to our children is a commitment to the infrastructure and resources needed in poor schools, like textbooks; like toilets that are not death traps; like ensuring learner safety from sexual violence; like classrooms that do not have crumbling walls or caving-in roofs; and like teachers who ensure their learners can read for understanding.
Health and education are the cornerstones of a functional democracy, yet these are at their worst for the most vulnerable in SA.
The name Langalam means “my sunshine” in isiXhosa. The Department of Basic Education should hang its head in shame for taking away grieving mother Nangamso Viki’s sunshine. DM168/MC
This first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.