By the time six-year-old Michael Komape’s body arrived at a morgue a few hours after being retrieved from the pit toilet at his school, it was infested with maggots, there was severe oedema of his brain and bloody froth was coming out of his mouth from inhaling excrement and urine, court papers in a lawsuit against the basic education department have indicated.
The department of basic education has responded in its own court papers vehemently denying any responsibility for his horrific death, and civil society is livid about it.
“It is further denied that Michael Komape’s death was caused by the wrongful, unlawful and negligent conduct as well as unconstitutional conduct of the defendants,” the basic education department said in its reply, which was filed at the high court in Polokwane on August 31.
Komape died on January 20 last year while relieving himself in a pit toilet at the Mahlodumela Lower Primary School in Chebeng, near Polokwane. Furious residents of the village tore the toilet down a few days later.
On June 29 this year, rights organisation Section27 filed papers at the court on behalf of the boy’s parents, Rosina and James Komape, who are seeking compensation from Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga for emotional trauma and not being able to work because of Michael’s death.
The parents say the defendants “knew or ought to have known that the toilet to which the late Michael went and fell into … was unsafe, unsecured and unfit for human use”, because it was “made of corrugated-iron material, which was dilapidated as a result of exposure to the elements; the seat was loose, unsecured and not balanced, and could not support the late Michael’s weight; and the pit was exposed, deep and not secured at the bottom to prevent drowning”.
Deny, deny, deny
The department denied that the toilet was unsafe and that the pit was in that state when Michael fell into it.
Instead, it said in its reply that he “fell into a toilet during play time. It was not foreseeable that any injury could occur.”
Yet in November 2013 Motshekga had published the much-anticipated norms and standards for school infrastructure, which provide a blueprint for what all public schools should look like. They specifically state “pit latrines and bucket toilets are not allowed at schools”.
But the department still said in its response that it “denied that the defendants should have known that the toilet was unsafe”.
Tebogo Sephakgamela, a member of the Limpopo-based rights group, Basic Education For All, told the Mail & Guardian these comments were insulting.
“When they say they should not have known … this is insulting. We speak with them all the time about the conditions of school toilets and they make promises to get rid of pit toilets but now they say they should not have known,” he said. “If they say this, it means they are lying and they don’t actually care about the conditions of toilets at schools.”
He said it was “likely it will happen to other learners because the department has not addressed the problem in other schools”.
The department did not respond to the M&G’s questions about its reasoning behind its statements, or what it had done about poor sanitation infrastructure in the province’s schools since Michael’s death.
Provinces submitted their plans for how they would implement the norms to Motshekga in June. In Limpopo’s plan, it says the department manages 4?076 schools and 2?895 of these have pit toilets.
The department had been aware of this situation for years, said Daniel Linde, the deputy director of the public interest Equal Education Law Centre.
“Michael died because the only place for him to relieve himself at his school was a dilapidated and dangerous pit latrine,” he said.
The department’s “failure to acknowledge its responsibility” was worrying because it implied that “countless learners will continue to attend school without assurance that unsafe infrastructure will be dealt with urgently”.
The centre’s sister organisation, Equal Education, said the department “has always understood its duty to act to fix school infrastructure, but delayed doing so for years”.
“The DBE [department of basic education] has a responsibility to ensure that learners are learning in safe schools under favourable conditions that will enhance their learning experience,” Equal Education’s spokesperson, Nombulelo Nyathela, told the M&G.
The trial is expected to be held early next year.