When nature calls, we need a toilet. But inadequate sanitation in schools is prevalent nationwide. Gauteng and the Western Cape, for instance, don’t have enough suitable toilet facilities because of the influx of pupils and the subsequent overcrowding.
It seems just like yesterday when we all read and heard the stories of six-year-old Michael Komape’s death in a pit latrine at school in 2014 and that of Lumka Mketwa at an Eastern Cape primary school earlier this year.
After Lumka’s death, the minister of basic education admitted that pit latrines at schools are a serious hazard.
South Africa has more than 23 000 public schools and almost half use pit latrines, which are often unsafe and unhygienic.
In some rural schools, teachers and pupils have to answer nature’s call in open fields. This state of affairs infringes upon pupils’ constitutional rights to equality, human dignity, life, environment, best interests and education.
School infrastructure has been the subject of much litigation. In August 2010 the Centre for Child Law at the University of Pretoria and seven schools in the Eastern Cape, represented by the Legal Resources Centre, launched a high court application. The suit resulted in an out-of-court settlement signed in 2011 in which the state undertook to spend R8.2-billion to eradicate mud schools.
As much as this case was about the refurbishment of schools, it was also about inadequate supply of water and sanitation.
More recently, the high court in Polokwane ordered the department to fix inadequate and unsafe sanitation facilities after hearing the case of the Komape family. In the plan submitted to the high court, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga and Limpopo Education MEC Ishmael Kgetjepe said it was only possible to begin addressing sanitation infrastructure at Limpopo schools in 2026.
The photographic evidence put before the court revealed dangerous and poor sanitary conditions at a large number of rural schools. In some cases, pupils use dilapidated toilets, which offer little, if any, privacy.
The court in that case opined that: “The right to basic education includes [the] provision of adequate and safe toilets at public schools for pupils, the failure of which compromises the best interests of children as found in section 28 of the Constitution. Provision of adequate toilet facilities at schools is not only a basic requirement for daily human existence but also provides for a healthy environment where the children spend their days.”
Poor sanitation also degrades the environment.
The link between the right to education and sanitation is an important one. Poor sanitation robs many pupils of an acceptable learning environment.
Clearly this is an equality issue: Why do some pupils have access to decent toilets and running water while others do not? Sanitation in schools is one of the many factors that must be addressed urgently to provide adequate basic education for all South African pupils.
When the finance minister delivered the 2018 medium-term budget policy statement, it was encouraging to see that one of spending priorities was the eradication of pit latrines and the improvement of school sanitation.
The commitment to provide sanitary pads in schools and not charging value-added tax on them, although encouraging, does not solve the problem of the absence of school sanitation infrastructure. If there are no properly functioning sanitation at schools, it means adolescent girls will still fail to attend school when they are menstruating — because they can’t dispose of sanitary pads and tampons hygienically and because there is no privacy.
Although the government is making advancements in policies and in practice to better the country’s impoverished schools, poor sanitation facilities are still a harsh reality facing pupils and teachers every day, causing absenteeism and even drop-outs.
That is aside from the affront to dignity and equality that occurs each time they must heed the call of nature.
This World Toilet Day, let us hope the deaths of Michael and Lumka have given impetus to our constitutional duty-bearers to urgently deliver proper toilets to pupils.