Proper sanitation in schools is a human right

'Let us build this social compact of shared responsibility and a new society founded on the principles of justice, dignity and equality,' writes President Ramaphosa (David Harrison/M&G)

'Let us build this social compact of shared responsibility and a new society founded on the principles of justice, dignity and equality,' writes President Ramaphosa (David Harrison/M&G)

In March this year, South Africa marked Human Rights Month under the theme “promoting and deepening human rights across society”. This was the same month in which a young girl named Lumka Mthethwa arrived at her school in the Eastern Cape and did not return home. Her life was cut devastatingly short when she fell into a pit toilet at her school.

READ MORE: Another child dies in a pit latrine

The indignity and heartache of a young life ended so tragically has made all of us rise up and take action.
This has necessitated that we must take whatever measures necessary to ensure that none of our children ever have to lose their lives in a place of learning because of inadequate conditions.

We have 25 000 schools in South Africa; unfortunately, nearly a fifth of them still use pit toilets. Many of these latrines are dangerous and unsanitary. This is unacceptable. Schools are the heartbeat of our communities; they are there to secure the future of our country. There is a human cost to this brick-and-mortar challenge that demands our attention.

It was former president Nelson Mandela who taught us that “to deny people their human rights is to challenge their very ­humanity”. At the core of our Constitution is a guarantee of human rights. It demands that every child be free from the indignity that Lumka ­suffered.

I have heard the cries of grieving families and felt the outrage in our communities. Together with nongovernmental organisations, corporations, parents and schools we will act with purpose and in concert to restore the dignity of our learners.

Earlier this year, I instructed the department of basic education to conduct an audit of all ­toilet facilities in our schools and implement an urgent plan to ­eradicate pit toilets in affected schools.

As a result of this sad tragedy we have now launched the Sanitation Appropriate for Education initiative. It has been determined that it will cost R10-billion to ensure that every school has safe and clean toilets. This is beyond the government’s financial capacity.

Notwithstanding this high cost, for our part as government, we have committed R3.4-billion to improve school infrastructure and eradicate dangerous pit latrines in our country’s schools.

READ MORE: South African schools’ toilet facilities: A shame and a disgrace

We are pleased that the private sector has risen to this ­challenge and has shown determination to work with ­government to address this problem. Our government is deeply pleased that Vodacom will be announcing a commitment this weekend at the Global Citizen Festival: Mandela100 to support the government’s efforts to ensure safe toilets in schools. We call on more corporates to follow their example by investing in our children’s safety, health and dignity.

Globally, the United Nations estimates that there are currently 2.3-billion people who live without access to adequate sanitation, one billion people who currently have no form of sanitation infrastructure, and 748-million people who live without access to drinking water.

South Africa is committed to the achievement of the sustainable development goals, a collective global pledge to end extreme ­poverty by 2030. As part of that commitment, South Africa must achieve access to adequate sanitation and hygiene for all.

We have made some progress in providing safe and adequate sanitation: the percentage of households with access to adequate sanitation increased from 62% in 2002 to 80% in 2015. In the public-school system, more than 11  000 schools have been provided with flush toilets since 1994.

Despite this progress, we know that we must move faster and do more to ensure secure and dignified solutions for all our citizens. We must harness modern technology and ­science to produce low-energy, water-saving solutions that are easy to install and keep clean.

This weekend, Johannesburg will welcome some of the biggest artists and social advocates of our time, as well as leaders from across the globe.

In the lead-up to the Global Citizen Festival, in the true spirit of the #ThumaMina (Send Me) campaign, more than four million actions have been taken by global citizens to show their commitment to helping those in need, to holding global leaders accountable for their promises and to making sure that we are all united in Madiba’s memory to make this world a better place.

Let us build this social compact of shared responsibility and a new society founded on the principles of justice, dignity and equality.

As a global citizen, I will act in solidarity with the sons and daughters of our country to ensure no one is left behind.

Cyril Matamela Ramaphosa is the president of South Africa and the president of the ANC

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