An alarming 57% revealed that they used the same cloth to clean the kitchen in the toilets.
So the spreading of germs, bacteria and cross-contamination is done unconsciously, on a daily basis, when it is supposed to be reduced. These are just some of the startling revelations disclosed to the Water Research Commission in a special report, “Rural School Sanitation: Why is it failing 2018?”
Earlier this year, President Cyril Ramaphosa instructed Minister of Education Angie Motshekga to conduct a full audit of school facilities with unsafe structures. This was after the fatal incident in which 5-year-old Viwe Jali drowned and died in a pit toilet at her school in the Eastern Cape.
Sadly, the incident was not the first.
Following the death of another pupil, Michael Kompane, in 2014, the Water Research Commission investigated the issue of school sanitation, particularly in rural parts of the country.
The president's instruction for the audit is a necessary one. Nonetheless, it needs to be said that there are many other issues pertaining to school sanitation than just structural ones.
What was found in the research were conditions that no human being should be exposed to, conditions infringing on basic human rights.
A total of 130 schools in the Eastern Cape, Limpopo and KwaZulu-Natal were visited and interviews conducted with pupils, principals and cleaners, and the toilets inspected.
The conditions of the school toilets differed, but what the research showed was how they infringed the pupils’ right to dignity, a fact to which they themselves attested.
Some of the toilets did not have lockable gates and 9% did not have pit covers, while 18% were broken, allowing pests to infiltrate the space and spread contamination.
Only 18% of the pupils felt the toilets were private, while the rest felt they were not. One pupil said the toilets at her school had missing doors, contravening the basic right to privacy.
Another pointed out that she felt a loss of dignity when she went to the toilet because there was no privacy.
Of all the schools visited, only 35% of the toilet blocks had wash basins, and only 50% of these were functioning as the rest had been vandalised.
Another child said they sometimes soiled themselves when they were really pressed because a previous user would have messed the seat.
Pictures taken during the investigation showed how filthy some toilets were, a fact to which the pupils attested - 71% found them smelly, 63% found them dirty and 41% expressed their fear of being subjected to bullying.
These appalling conditions were linked to failed management.
Not to be ignored is also the fact that some schools have the decent toilets reserved for teachers; this was the situation at the school where Michael Kompane died.
The interventions should not just be about constructing structures that are safe to use, but about building facilities that offer dignity to our children.
Children have an entire section in the constitution dedicated to them (Section 28) that is supposed to protect their rights.
The unfortunate death of the two young children has led to the discovery and understanding of the daily health risks, lack of safety and humiliation that children in the rural areas face daily in a free and democratic South Africa. The structures of some of these schools date back to apartheid years where some communities had to build their own schools out of mud, just so that their children could have a place of learning.
Notwithstanding that these conditions affect all children, there is also the issue of girls who skip school when they have their periods because they can't even change sanitary towels in private - and that is aside from the fact that some don't even use sanitary towels, but cloths instead.
Ultimately, with no doors, toilet paper or privacy, they opt to stay home and miss school on a monthly basis.
We have seen an emergence of NGOs, “privileged” schools, businesses, individuals and drives collecting and donating sanitary towels to the needy.
It has been recommended that toilet designs that do not place a user directly over a deep pit be adopted.
The Water Research Commission remains committed to working with stakeholders towards the creation of environmentally-friendly and sustainable sanitation for schools.
* Boitumelo Lekalakala works for the Water Research Commission and writes in her personal capacity.