In 2014, South Africa mourned the death of Michael Komape, a 5-year-old child who fell into a pit toilet at his school and drowned. His untimely death sparked national outrage and demands for the government to make school sanitation safer for children.
Five years later, Section27, the social justice nonprofit organisation that represented the Komape family in court, says that there’s still much more to be done to make sure that school sanitation structures in the country are safe for children.
It seemed that the national Department of Water and Sanitation and the regional government in Limpopo, the province in which Komape drowned, were making headway by putting plans in place to manage the sanitation problem. However the maintenance of these plans has become the government’s shortfall.
According to an article published by Section27 in The Daily Maverick, installing sustainable and safe toilets in schools requires linking to a bulk water supply, which the national and regional governments are responsible for.
In schools that experience water shortages, the government has invested in Enviro-Loos, which are waterless systems that work through organic decomposition and dehydration. In 2019, almost 2,000 schools across the country used Enviro-Loos, however these systems require constant maintenance.
Earlier this year Section27 found that neither the provincial education department in Limpopo nor the national Department of Education were attending to the maintenance of these Enviro-Loos, forcing some schools to go back to using pit toilets.
One school in particular was Kharivha Primary School in Limpopo. As a result of this, Section27 threatened to take the regional Department of Education to court before schools opened in June. Kharivha’s toilets fell apart in 2000, according to Section27, and two decades later the regional government had failed to prioritise a sustainable solution for the school.
As building pit toilets in schools is against the law, they were demolished in May 2020 and Kharivha Primary School once again had no functioning toilets for learners or teachers to use. After Section27’s action, the regional Department of Education delivered two safe and sanitary mobile toilets to the school.
School toilets in the time of COVID-19
Section27 told Eyewitness News (EWN) that the COVID-19 pandemic has again highlighted the government’s neglect for children’s basic rights to sanitation.
In a statement, spokesperson Nontsikelelo Mpulo explained that the South African government’s response for safe sanitation in schools during the pandemic has not been sustainable.
“They obtained mobile toilets for over 3,000 schools for three months. These are temporary solutions; we need sustainable solutions for safe sanitation in this country,” she said.
The Daily Maverick reported that the money used for these costly, yet temporary, emergency COVID-19 sanitation facilities was taken from national school infrastructure budgets that were already stretched, without consideration for infrastructure that had already been planned.
Earlier this year, Minister Tito Mboweni presented the national supplementary budget in response to the pandemic’s impact on the economy. This new budget saw significant cuts to education infrastructure funding, with The Daily Maverick reporting that R2 billion was cut from the Education Infrastructure Grant.
About a quarter of this amount was transferred to the School Infrastructure Backlog Grant (SIBG) to pay for temporary access to water and sanitation in schools. Despite this reallocation of funds, the SIBG’s budget was further cut by R60 million.
Although protests have been made for the reallocation of the national budget to the Department of Education, no changes have been made.
According to EWN, Section27 is preparing to take the Limpopo Education Department to court either this year or in 2021 to implement a structural order handed down by the Polokwane High Court in 2018.
The order requires an audit of the state of sanitation and for education authorities to provide a detailed plan for the eradication of unsafe sanitation to remedy the situation. This is an essential part of the plan to eradicate pit toilets once and for all.