The image of a boy’s hand sticking out of a pit toilet is printed on the white T-shirts worn by people huddled together in a packed courtroom at the Limpopo division of the high court. Above the hand, the words: “Do you know Michael?” are written in red.
It is a blazing 28°C on Monday in Polokwane and Rosina Komape is sitting in the witness stand, ready to testify about losing her five-year-old son Michael three years ago. Michael died after falling into a pit toilet at his school a few days after he began his schooling career on January 20 2014.
The image on the T-shirt, representing the day Rosina discovered her son’s body submerged in human faeces, is harrowing.
But it does not quite capture the horror of the evidence the court has heard this week — of a child suffocating, choking on human faeces, reaching for someone to pull him out. But there was no one.
Hours later, his mother still desperately hoping he could be rescued alive, had to sit, looking at the little hand, waiting for social services to come.
A school with toilets not fit for people, so concerned with its reputation that it forced a family friend to delete photos of the gruesome scene. A government that justified its behaviour by saying in court that it gave groceries to the family for the funeral.
Earlier, the T-shirted group demonstrated outside the court building carrying a huge banner on which was written: #IStandWithMichael. The lawsuit, supported by advocacy group Section27, has taken two years to come before the court. The family is claiming about R3‑million in damages from the department of basic education and the Limpopo education department.
Michael was in grade R at Mahlodumela Primary School in Chebeng village outside Polokwane. Before Rosina testifies, the family’s counsel, Vincent Maleka, opens proceedings by telling Judge Gerrit Muller that in front of him is a “case of a humble family that lost the life of one of its own”.
[Hundreds attended the funeral of Michael Komape three years ago. (Elijar Mushiana/Gallo Images/Sowetan)]
Maleka refers Muller to a page of the pleadings bundle featuring a picture of the pit toilet that claimed Michael’s life — a large corrugated iron box stained by waste, with a rusty, gaping and jagged hole where the seat was supposed to be. Maleka later tells the court that the government was “warned” about the conditions of the pit latrines at the school as early as 2009.
“The SGB [school governing body] was quite concerned about the structure of the toilets. We will present evidence to show that there was a request by civil organisations asking the department of basic education and Limpopo department of education not only to provide some toilets, but [also] to take steps to deal with the risk posed by these toilets. The [provincial] department promised to take steps to deal with the issue, but those steps were not taken until Michael lost his life,” Maleka says.
As he talks, Rosina occasionally shuts her eyes and takes a sip of water. Seated next to her is her husband, James. Sweat runs down his face; his one hand holds a tissue while the other attempts to hug his wife.
On the witness stand, Rosina’s voice is barely audible, prompting the interpreter to ask her to speak up.
Minutes after being sworn in as a witness, she is overwhelmed by tears. The court is adjourned briefly to allow the grieving mother to compose herself.
After describing in painful detail how she discovered her son’s body — she recognised his hand, the only part of him not submerged in faeces — she tells the court how Michael’s death had left her family devastated. For a long time afterwards she had nightmares.
“When sleeping, I used to see my son’s hand calling me. I would cry the whole night.”
She also lost her job. Employed as a domestic worker for three days a week and earning R1 080 a month, when she returned to work after a period of grieving she found that she had been fired.
“She [her former employer] told me that I gave no reason for staying away from work for so long and she went ahead and hired someone else,” she tells the court. “I lost my child and lost my job. My children are now suffering.”
Part of the claim the family is making is for loss of income as the result of Michael’s death.
When Rosina is cross-examined by the state’s counsel, Simon Phaswane, he opens by saying that any loss of life is a serious matter.
She answers: “It’s a serious matter, especially if it happens in an unusual manner. If he was sick, it would have been easier.”
Dressed in a brown shweshwe dress with a matching doek, Rosina often stands up from her seat as if wanting to emphasise her point. Even when she is overcome by emotion, she refuses the offer of a “comfort break”.
Phaswane attempts to convince Rosina that she needs to see Michael’s death as an accident and not as negligence by the school.
“Are you saying if he was hit by a car in the school premises, it would have been easier?” he asks.
“Why would he be hit by a car inside the school premises?” Rosina responds.
“If he was hit by a car it would be different, but now it’s hard because he fell in a toilet and I saw him there. It’s painful because he was under the care of teachers when he died,” she continues.
“Because you saw him lying in a toilet dead, is that what caused you pain?” Phaswane asks.
“I do not think I will ever recover from the pain. If Michael was sick, I would have accepted that he died because he was ill. If it was an accident, I would have accepted that he died from an accident. This one is painful,” responds Rosina.
“Are you saying falling inside the toilet was not an accident?” asks Phaswane.
Her voice now more assertive, louder, Rosina refuses to back down. “This was not an accident. It was negligence from the teachers and the principal.”
“You do not accept that Michael’s death was an accident?” the state’s counsel persists.
“If I had not taken Michael to that school, he would still be alive,” insists Rosina.
“How do you know?” asks Phaswane.
“Because the principal knew the condition of the toilets and they did not fix them,” she says.
Phaswane has to move on.
He later asks Rosina if she had taken the state to court because she wanted money.
The question infuriates her. She stands up from her seat to answer. “Money won’t bring my child back,” she says. “If it were up to me, I would say I don’t want the money but my child back.”
The pathologist who performed a postmortem on Michael’s body, Dr Kwena Matlala, gives a gruesome account of the findings he made on the boy’s body. Bloody froth came out of his mouth and his brain was severely swollen —both caused by lack of oxygen.
Michael’s lungs had expanded so much that they covered his heart, caused by the drowning. His stomach was distended from ingested air.
Asked by the family’s lawyer, Nikki Stein, what caused the additional air in the stomach, Matlala responds: “It might be that the poor boy was gasping for air and that resulted in the stomach to be distended.”
Matlala concluded that Michael’s death was unnatural. The trial continues.
School sanitation crisis is long-standing
More than 4 000 schools in the country still use pit toilets and 45 have no toilets at all, according to the department of basic education.
This data is contained in the department’s 2017 National Education Infrastructure Management System (Neims) report.
The 2017 report shows that out of 23 495 schools, 4 557 used pit toilets.
Forty-five are without toilets at all and are in the Eastern Cape.
Provinces with the highest number of pit toilets are the Eastern Cape at 1 546, KwaZulu-Natal at 1 377 and Limpopo at 918.
According to statistics provided by Equal Education — which has been admitted as a friend of the court in a lawsuit under way at the high court in Limpopo — sanitation has long been a crisis at South African schools.
The lawsuit was brought by the family of Michael Komape with the assistance of advocacy group Section 27. The family is suing the state for damages for the death of five-year-old Michael, who fell into a pit latrine at school and drowned in faeces.
From as far back as 2010, Equal Education has been campaigning to highlight challenges in school infrastructure.
In 2012, it took Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga to court to compel her to publish regulations that set minimum norms and standards for school infrastructure. Motshekga released the regulations in November 2013.
The regulations stipulate the basic level of infrastructure that schools must have to function properly.
Last year, provincial departments of education published their plans with deadlines on when they would deal with the infrastructure backlog — including sanitation, provision of water and electricity.
An affidavit by Equal Education’s Brad Brockman says the state should have been well aware of “the crisis of inadequate and unsafe school conditions in South Africa”.
In the affidavit, Brockman provides statistics dating back to 2006, which showed the dire conditions of sanitation in schools. The statistics were obtained from Neims reports.
In 2009, the Neims report showed that 150 schools were still using the bucket system, 11 231 used pit latrines and 970 had no toilets.
Two years later, the report showed an increase in the number of schools that used pit toilets. The number had risen to 11 450. The number of schools with no toilet facilities at all had gone down slightly to 913.
“These reports illustrate both the dire conditions of sanitation infrastructure in schools, as well as a lack of policy improvements over a six-year period,” reads the affidavit.
“In addition, the reports indicate that schools in rural provinces … are in the worst condition, but that the problem of poor school infrastructure is a national crisis and is not exclusive to rural provinces.”
Brockman also says that, twice in 2013, Equal Education had included individual testimonies of pupils, parents and teachers when it submitted its comment on the draft regulations to Motshekga. Some of these testimonies were about the shortage of toilets at some schools and pit latrines that are unhygienic and dangerous.
“The more than 500 individual testimonies are evidence of the extent of the infrastructure problems in South African schools in 2013 and, because they were presented to the minister, they are indicative of the minister’s level of knowledge of the crisis,” he said.
Poor sanitation is not just a problem of rural schools.
In 2013, Equal Education launched the Gauteng sanitation campaign to highlight the poor state of toilets in the province.
The provincial department of education has since invested millions to improve sanitation in schools.