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Some schools don’t have toilets, while others are in an unspeakable condition, writes Lebogang Seale.
SEVEN years ago, a 4-year-old child survived when she fell into a pit toilet at Umgababa Primary School in KwaZulu-Natal.
Somehow, the near-tragedy seemed to disappear quietly, passing without causing an uproar.
In a more chilling incident two years later (2008), two 6-year-old children, Dimpho Malatjie and Devotion Mokone, fell to their death in a toilet at Hlalakahle Primary School. The school is located in a remote village of Mpumalanga and borders Manyeleti Game Reserve.
Again, the incident simply passed almost as if it was a freak accident – causing little upheaval or protestation, if any.
Amid the silence, it was left to the two children’s grieving mothers to brood over their loss. And the scars are so deep that they won’t heal.
“I have accepted it (the tragedy). But sometimes I avoid walking to the backyard because it hurts so much seeing my child’s grave,” said Wisani Malatjie, Dimpho’s mother, revealing the small grave behind her low-cost house.
“I often see her at night, talking to me. Sometimes I cry when I think how she suffocated in that pit.”
It took the death of Michael Komape, the 6-year-old Limpopo boy who suffered the same fate as Dimpho and Devotion last month, to galvanise South Africans to the perils posed by pit latrines.
Suddenly, the government faced the wrath of public anger and was called upon to account for its failure to provide the most basic of amenities. Unlike before, vigilant human rights lobby groups such as Equal Education and Section27 had emerged and were now helping the SA Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) to make the noise loud enough to irritate the government. Suddenly, politicians could no longer be at ease about their glaring failures or negligence.
Normally, any regime that likes to pride itself as “having a story to tell” about caring for its citizens doesn’t have to be reminded that basic hygiene is a fundamental human right, does it?
But in South Africa’s underworld of deceit, lies and gluttony, it’s not unusual to see the premier of a province prioritising the purchase of five luxury vehicles worth millions of rand for himself than basic sanitation for schoolchildren.
It’s hardly surprising in modern-day South Africa, or is it?
What happened in Limpopo and Mpumalanga is a microcosm of the grim reality of how thousands of schools still have to put up with pit toilets.
The national Department of Basic Education’s own reports on school infrastructure show the magnitude of the problem. The most recent report, in 2011, said there were 11 450 schools using pit toilets and 913 schools with no toilets at all.
Last year, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga said there were still 700 schools with no toilets.
This is despite the government being a signatory to the SAHRC’s Charter of Children’s Basic Education Rights.
The charter, which was adopted in 2012, stipulates that all public schools must comply with the infrastructure standards for basic services. This includes the eradication of all mud structures and unsafe buildings, the eradication of pit and bucket toilets, and the provision of safe drinking water.
Now, a leaked ANC national executive committee secretariat report on education and health shows that the government has spectacularly admitted to failing to meet its own infrastructure development targets.
The report, which was presented to the ANC’s lekgotla on January 22, states that backlogs in infrastructure are among the priority programmes that are unlikely to be completed before the elections this year. It’s a grim picture about the incongruities of post-liberation South Africa 20 years after.
Particularly distressing is that this year’s Grade 1 pupils will probably have to wait until they are in high school before pit toilets are outlawed. This is because the regulations give the government seven years to meet the standards for infrastructure and sanitation.
As long as politicians continue to fiddle, so will children continue to suffer by being exposed to probably the crudest form of sewage disposal.
The danger was poignantly highlighted by a parent at a media briefing by civil society lobby group Section27.
Solly Milambo described the toilets in Limpopo schools as “scary places” to visit.
“In one school, I saw children going to a hole to help themselves. The situation is horrible in Limpopo.” He added that children were often forced to go to the bush rather than endanger their health using dilapidated and overflowing pit toilets.
For thousands of other pupils, however, going to the bush isn’t a matter of choice when nature calls.
The Star also visited Manyeleti Primary in Mpumalanga, where pupils and teachers have to go home between lessons or to the homes of colleagues and classmates.
The pit toilets that are there are so dilapidated that government officials recently declared them unsafe for use.
“We are worried that what happened at Hlalakahle and elsewhere could happen to our children or teachers,” said school governing body chairman Donald Mahanuka.
It’s not just the lack of ablution facilities that pupils and teachers have to contend with. At Emjindini Senior Secondary School in Barberton, The Star found pupils learning in dilapidated and overcrowded classrooms.
Such is the appalling state of the buildings that the roofing has caved in, leaving the ceiling hanging precariously overhead.
Many pupils, especially the Grade 8s and 9s, are forced to learn while standing on their feet because of a shortage of furniture.
“We don’t like our school because the classrooms are like hostels. When we tell people that we attend here, they laugh at us and say ‘your school is shocking’,” said a pupil, who identified herself only as Nontobeko.
Inevitably, teaching in dilapidated buildings without adequate furniture has left teachers demoralised.
“Some pupils simply walk out of the classroom because the heat can be unbearable at times. We do try, but it’s too difficult,” lamented one teacher.
If there was doubt about the notion that the line between promises and actual delivery of service is usually thin when it comes to politicians, it was given credence by Emjindini school governing body chairwoman Sarah Mabuza.
Describing her frustration trying to get Mpumalanga government officials to upgrade derelict buildings, she said: “We’ve had several visits by various MPLs and the (education) MEC (Siphosezwe Masango), but we don’t see any progress. It’s all promises, promises, which come to naught.”