Pretoria - Three women silently protested in the hall while President Cyril Ramaphosa was delivering his speech on Tuesday during the launch of the Sanitation Appropriate for Education (SAFE), an initiative aimed at improving sanitation at some of the country’s poorest schools.
The women held placards and slammed the government for the deaths of two young children who fell in pit toilets.
The launch of SAFE comes four years after the death of five-year-old Michael Komape, who fell and died in a pit latrine at his Limpopo school in 2014.
His death was followed by that of another five-year-old, Lumka Mkthethwa from the Eastern Cape, who died after falling into a pit latrine in March.
After Mkthethwa's death, the president instructed the Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga to carry out an audit of school sanitation facilities and to submit a plan to eradicate these within three months.
One of the placards from the women questioned why the government is hosting the event while Motshekga is appealing a ruling to fix the schools.
"Why did government last week file an appeal of the Bhisho High Court judgment that says government can’t avoid fixing schools.
"How do we appeal a judgment which makes the norms better and we come here and talk about the dire state of school infrastructure and the need to eradicate pit toilets, but you are fighting that as a department," asked Hopolang Selebano from NGO Equal Education.
Gauteng MEC of Education Panyaza Lesufi who was also at the event went to the women and calmly spoke to them.
Before stepping down from the podium, Ramaphosa acknowledged the women and said Mkthethwa's death was the catalyst for the initiative.
"Schools should be places were kids are safe and empowered. They should be centres for building communities. This initiative goes beyond the brick and mortar of sanitation, it touches young souls of our nation," Ramaphosa said.
He described the recent events in which schoolchildren died in pit latrines toilets in their schools as an emergency that needed the attention of every community.
“There are nearly 4 000 schools across the country that only have pit latrines or other inappropriate facilities. These are the schools that serve the children of the poor.
“It was in such a school, Mahlodumela Primary School in Limpopo, where five-year-old Michael Komape drowned in a pit toilet in 2004. And it was in such a school, Luna Junior Primary School in the Eastern Cape, where Lumka Mkhethwa lost her life in March this year,” Ramaphosa said.
Earlier Ramaphosa appealed to businesses and people of goodwill in the country to help more than 4000 schools to have access to proper ablution facilities.
He said would spare generations of young South Africans the indignity, discomfort and danger of using pit latrines and other unsafe facilities in their schools.
“We are here to ask to be part of a bold social initiative to ensure that every school in the country has safe and appropriate sanitation facilities.
“This is an initiative that will save lives and restore the dignity of tens of thousands of our nation’s children as our Constitution demands,” he said.
Ramaphosa added that schools should be places where children could be safe, supported, nurtured and empowered.
The SAFE initiative, led by the department of basic education in partnership with the National Education Collaboration Trust, the Nelson Mandela Foundation and Unicef, is in response to the significant school sanitation challenges facing SA’s poorest schools.
African News Agency/ANA