School toilets still the pits

On August 19, I arrived at Kalalo Primary School in Mqanduli in the Eastern Cape, as I have for the past 10 years. As always, I got to school before dawn, unlocked the jagged steel gate, and carried out my normal routine as school caretaker.

After finishing my morning sweep of the school at 5.30am, I went to relieve myself in the staff toilet.

All of a sudden, the floor collapsed beneath me. As I fell, I smacked my head against the wall, and in moments the platform caved in and I fell into a pit of human waste, stale rainwater and floating sanitary pads.

I was drowning. I started swimming as hard as I could just to stay afloat. With no foothold, I startedsfrantically grasping at anything [that might be] in arm’s reach – the cracked floor, the toilet door, the door frame – but to no avail.

I kept falling back into the pit toilet waste, drowning and struggling for my life.

After trying everything, I eventually managed to grab hold of a small step in the doorway and was finally able to pull myself out to safety. I had been in there for 25 minutes.

When the clerk arrived and helped to arrange for clean clothes to be brought to me, he took a stick to measure the pit I had fellen into: it was more than two metres deep.

More than two months after the incident, the [new] toilets have still not been built.

I continue to work at Kalalo. It took a few days for me to recover and begin eating again after the fall, and I still feel anxious every time I walk by the toilets at school.

If our school building was in good condition, this never would have happened. I’m just glad it was me and not one of the pupils.

I was old enough to survive but, if it was one of the children, they wouldn’t have made it. – Related by Mtundini Saphepha

Saphepha’s story sounds eerily similar to the incident that led to the tragic death of Michael Komape, the pupil who died last year after falling into a pit toilet at his school in Limpopo. Only Saphepha managed to survive.

Equal Education has named its school infrastructure drive the Michael Komape Campaign in honour of the boy. We’re fighting to hold the state accountable to make sure that all schools have the infrastructure needed for children to thrive.

A national education infrastructure management system report released in May this year noted that 10 419 schools still have pit toilets, 3 767 have no or unreliable electricity, and 5 225 have no or an unreliable water supply.

It was through our campaign and with the courageous help of our allies around the country that Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga passed the Regulations Relating to the Minimum Uniform Norms and Standards for Public School Infrastructure in November 2013. This historic law was designed to make sure that no schools have toilets like Michael’s in Limpopo, or Saphepha’s near Mthatha in the Eastern Cape.

But the Kalalo Primary School at which Saphepha works is not in the Eastern Cape’s provincial plan for the implementation of the norms. It has two buildings in which pupils learn, one mud and one concrete.

Had its two buildings been separate schools, the mud school would be urgently addressed in the first timeframe of the law, including the installation of water, electricity and sufficient sanitation facilitates. But, because its school is not built entirely of mud, it is not prioritised under the three-year timeframe of the law, and no details are given for when it will be addressed.

The pupils will continue to suffer from leaking roofs that damage textbooks, wind that makes it impossible to hear the teacher, and toilets that have pose a lethal threat to them and the staff.

The Equal Education Law Centre is exploring a case against Motshekga to fix this and other loopholes in the norms and standards legislation.

The Komape family is also suing the minister of education, holding the department responsible for their son’s death. The state continues to defend its innocence vehemently, arguing that it could not have known that the toilet Michael was using was unfit for use.

But his school’s toilet was not an anomaly. Countless toilets in schools around the country are in a shocking condition. The Kalalo Primary School is just one example, which could have had fatal consequences. Other principals at schools I have visited have had sustained communications with the department, starting more than a decade ago, documenting dangerous conditions – broken toilets, exposed live wiring, venomous snakes and even sinkholes in classrooms.

The principal of Kalalo Primary School immediately notified the department of education about the Saphepha incident, and the district sent officials to visit it a few weeks after his fall. They promised the immediate construction of new toilets, and even instructed the school and neighbouring residents to stop building toilets they were funding with their own money. The department’s toilets have still not been built. – David Carel, deputy head of the Eastern Cape office of Equal Education in King William’s Town

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