Toilet into which Michael Komape fell was carelessly maintained, court hears

Mehlodumela Primary School began asking for new toilets from the Limpopo department of education six years before little Michael Komape fell into a pit latrine and died.

This was the evidence presented by advocacy group, Section 27, at the Limpopo High Court today at the ongoing civil lawsuit by the Komape family after Michael drowned in faeces in a pit toilet in 2014.

The court also heard expert evidence that those responsible for building the toilets at the school were careless and negligent in maintaining them.

The family’s counsel, Chris Maleka, presented letters from school principal dating back to February 2008 requesting new toilets. The following year, the principal and the school governing body secretary, wrote another letter to the department asking for it to provide an excavator to dig pits for school toilets.

“The learners’ toilets are sinking so the school is going to buy temporary steel toilets for learners. The school is urging you to negotiate for us the excavator to be send as soon as possible,” reads the letter which was signed on July 27, 2009.

Maleka also provided receipts which show that the school took money out of its funds to buy building material for four toilets, which cost R4650, and also paid R3300 for the digging of the toilet holes. This happened in August 2009 after it had written to the department in July requesting for an excavator and notifying the department that it had decided to buy temporary toilets for pupils.

But civil engineer, David Still, testified in court that the material used to build the four toilets, one of them being the one into which Michael fell and died into, was the “cheapest type available on the South African market”.

Still, who specializes in sanitation particularly at rural schools, presented a report he made in May 2016 of the observations of the school toilets in which Michael died. Going through pictures of the toilets, he said: “The walls are made using the thinnest available grade of galvanised corrugated steel sheeting (you can tell it is the cheapest grade by the way it has buckled and bent in places). The frame is of a light construction which has not held its shape properly, and the wall sheets have been inadequately attached to the frame (you can see where they have worked loose in several places). Presumably the structures once had doors of a sort, but these have fallen off and the toilet users have no privacy,” reads Still’s report.

The pictures showed that in 2014 there were only three toilets left.

In his report, Still pointed out that the pedestal in one toilet had failed and the seat had collapsed into the structure. All the toilets did not have doors.

Commenting on the toilet in which Michael fell into, he said: “The top of the toilet was badly rusted and gave away when Michael was sitting on the toilet. Some of the rusted metal either fell into the pit with Michael, or was removed at a later stage.”

He said because of its dilapidated state, to use the toilet, “a user would have had to balance on the front edge , which particularly for a small child whose feet do not reach the floor would be particularly risky …”

The picture of the pit toilet that claimed Michael’s life is a large corrugated zinc box stained by waste, a rusty, gaping and jagged hole where the seat was supposed to be.

Still also said the primary school pupils were using adult toilets seats which was “fundamentally unsafe when used in conjunction with pit toilets at junior primary schools”. But this was normal practice in school sanitation.

He concluded his report by saying that those responsible for the building of the toilets were “careless” and “negligent” in maintaining them.

“The toilets should have been condemned long before Michael Komape’s tragic death took place,” said Still.

Last week Michael’s family, including parents – James and Rosina – testified that they blamed the school and the department for the death of their son.

The family said the school knew that the toilets were not in good conditions and were “rotten” – as Rosina put it – but they still allowed small children to use them.

The family is suing the department of basic education and Limpopo department of education about R3-million in damages for the death of Michael.

On Friday clinical psychologist, Steven Molepo, who counselled the family a year after Michael died told the court that the family had showed signs of depression following the horrendous death.

He testified that Rosina had particularly been hit hard by the death and told him that when thinking about Michael she would experience breathing problems and had anxiety attacks.

He said he had seen the family longer than he sees most of his patients, which he sees for four sessions, because of the severity of their trauma and told the court that even though they were dealing with the death of Michael they still needed more counselling.

The trial continues.

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Bongekile Macupe
Bongekile Macupe is an education reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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