In a week Grade R pupil Michael Komape fell into a pit latrine and died at his Limpopo school, a new court application has drawn attention to the rot of sanitation facilities in schools of another troubled province - the Eastern Cape.
The Legal Resources Centre and the Centre for Child Law this week brought, on behalf of parents of pupils in five schools, a lawsuit in the Eastern Cape High Court to order the government to eradicate mud schools in the province.
Sworn affidavits submitted to the court to support the litigation demonstrate in detail how bad toilets are in the five applicant schools.
First is Samson Senior Primary School in the province’s Libode district. Centre for Child Law’s director Ann Skelton told the court, via her affidavit, “the school has no toilet facilities and children relieve themselves in the surrounding veld”.
“Faeces are scattered around the rondawels and church buildings used as classrooms. It is unhygienic and a health risk. It is also an affront to the learners’ dignity and privacy.”
And “one of the biggest problems” at Ncincinikwe Junior Secondary School in Butterworth “is the complete absence of toilets for learners”, Skelton stated in the court papers.
“The learners are forced to relieve themselves in a nearby field, which is strewn with faeces and toilet paper.”
In her affidavit, Siyabonga Benile, a Grade 7 pupil at Ncincinikwe, said the school’s latrines were as good as not there.
“The four toilets at the bottom of the school field are unusable because they are too shallow and they are collapsing.
“I and the other learners at the school have to go across the road to relieve ourselves in the veld. My teachers ask a neighbouring house if they can use the toilet there.”
Relieving themselves in a bushy field was quite embarrassing for girls, more especially when they had their periods, Benile told the court.
“Our parents spend money on our uniforms and make sure we come to school looking as neat as we can. But when we get to school, we have no option but to relieve ourselves in the field,” she said.
“We try our best to have a good education, but it is very difficult to retain our self-respect in these conditions.”
Skelton added in her affidavit: “Melibuwa Senior Primary School (in Amathole district) also has no toilet facilities for its learners. Like Ncincinikwe, learners are forced to use the school grounds and surrounding fields.”
She told the court that toilets at Gqeyane senior primary “have also been destroyed and learners must now use the surrounding fields”.
The government was yet to file papers responding to the latest education lawsuit.
But the horrific death of 6-year-old Michael at Mahlodumela Primary School in Chebeng village outside Polokwane was a tragedy long coming, education rights activists said.
Section27, the Joburg-based advocacy group famous for litigation that forced the Department of Basic Education to deliver textbooks, called for “emergency intervention” on Limpopo’s school infrastructure in 2012.
The organisation said then: “On a day-to-day basis the sanitation situation at many schools is becoming more desperate, with school toilets collapsing in the recent floods.
“Indeed, there are some schools in Limpopo where there are no functional toilets at all.”
The sanitation crisis in Limpopo schools exists to date, and culminated in the death of Michael on Monday.
“The department has known about the problems of school sanitation for many years,” Nikki Stein, the organisation's attorney, told The Sunday Independent this week.
“Section27 first drew the attention of the Department of Basic Education and the Limpopo Department of Education in 2012, but a number of schools had contacted them directly as well.”
The Limpopo Education Department thwarted Section27’s inclination to litigate for infrastructure last year, providing what it said was a detailed plan to reverse school sanitation backlog.
Stein said the plan listed 415 schools for which the department would provide the so-called VIP toilets (ventilated improved pit latrines), but many more schools were seemingly left out.
“We have been asking the department since March 2013 for a list of criteria that they use to identify those 415 schools. They’ve never come back to us with those criteria,” said Stein.
“The reason they are so important is, we’re contacted regularly by schools in Limpopo who’ve heard about the plan, but aren’t included in it. But their sanitation facilities are in an absolutely disgusting state.”
But Phuti Seloba, the Limpopo Education Department’s spokesman, said they were well aware of the extent of sanitation problems.
He placed the number of schools they’ve earmarked for new latrines at more than 850.
“We’re putting our heads on the block to eradicate pit toilets in our schools this year,” said Seloba.
The incident at Mahlodumela took place a few weeks before the school construction of new toilets could start, he said.
While it was understood the department could not “address the sanitation crisis overnight”, said Stein, it lacked capacity.
“They have the resources, but they need to get the capacity.
“But in the meantime, while they are getting everything together, we cannot expect learners to continue to go to school in unsafe conditions.”
Skelton also hammered home this point: “What stands in the way of providing proper sanitation for learners is not money, there’s no lack of money in government. The problem is lack of capacity.”
While Michael’s death and the mud schools court action turned the spotlight on pit toilets in Limpopo and the Eastern Cape, whose education departments are under national administration, the SA Human Rights Commission cast the net nationwide.
“The commission has in the past raised many concerns with government regarding the state of sanitation, in particular around schools still using pit toilets, especially in the rural areas across the country,” said its spokesman, Isaac Mangena.
There were 11 450 schools across the country still using pit latrine toilets in 2011, rights group Equal Education said.
Michael will be buried on Sunday.
- Sunday Independent