Limpopo’s number of pit toilets don’t add up

Pit toilets at a Limpopo school. (Andrew Hlongwane/Sowetan/Gallo Images)

Pit toilets at a Limpopo school. (Andrew Hlongwane/Sowetan/Gallo Images)

Polly Boshielo, the Limpopo MEC for education, has committed to eliminating pit toilets in the province by the end of this financial year. Giving her maiden budget speech, Boshielo said the department had put aside R1.05-billion for infrastructure development.

She said that there are 507 schools with pit toilets in Limpopo. The national basic education department would replace these pit toilets with proper sanitation at 300 of the schools, and her department would do the same at the remaining 207 schools.

Boshielo promised: “There will be no talk of pit latrines in the next financial year.”

But, in an affidavit filed in the Polokwane high court last year, the provincial department said it had “identified 1 658 schools with sanitation needs and 1 489 of these schools having pit toilets on site”.
This, it said, affected 540 453 learners and would take 14 years to eradicate — a process that would start only in 2026.

Despite this earlier admission, the spokesperson for the provincial department, Sam Makondo, insisted that the province only has 507 schools with pit toilets.

He told the Mail & Guardian that the 1 489 number in the affidavit referred to schools that needed improved sanitation facilities — but that they did not have pit toilets.

“These facilities are inadequate, meaning we have to increase the number of seats as per learner enrolment, inappropriate meaning we have to maintain and refurbish to keep them up to the required standards,” he said.

The province, it seems, cannot decide how many pit toilets it has — or what constitutes a toilet.

The affidavit came after a court order in the Michael Komape judgment, which required the department to provide the court with names and locations of all schools in rural areas with pit toilets and the estimated period required to replace the toilets.

Five-year-old Komape drowned in faeces after falling into a pit toilet at the Mahlodumela Primary School, outside Polokwane, in 2014. He had been in grade R for only three days.

The judgment came after a lawsuit was brought by advocacy group Section27 against the national department of education and the Limpopo department of education, on behalf of the Komape family. In that case, in 2017, the court heard how the school principal and governing body had written to the provincial department as far back as 2008, asking for new toilets. The school only got new toilets six years later — after Michael’s death.

In its affidavit, filed in August last year, the department cited budget constraints and the delay by implementing agents and other organs of state as some of the major obstacles that had led to an infrastructure backlog in the province.

“These challenges have compelled the department to defer some of the programmes to later years,” reads the affidavit.

Advocacy group Equal Education said the provincial department showed disregard for the risks associated with pit toilets. It also said it was shocking that no reason was given why eradication of pit toilets would only start in 2026.

Equal Education also said in its answering affidavit that it had visited 16 schools in the province in September last year and found that 10 of them had “dangerous toilets”, and that it was alarming that they were not part of the list of schools the provincial department was looking at improving.

Last year, after the death of five-year-old Lumka Mketwa, who fell into a pit toilet at Luna Primary School in Bizana in the Eastern Cape, President Cyril Ramaphosa ordered the department of basic education to conduct an audit on school sanitation. This revealed that there were 3 898 schools that still had pit toilets.

Appearing before the portfolio committee in November, the department of basic education said its target was to have eradicated all pit toilets in the country by 2019/20.

Bongekile Macupe

Bongekile Macupe

Bongekile Macupe is the education reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She is an award-winning journalist who has extensively covered both basic and higher education in South Africa. Her coverage includes #FeesMustFall, the case of Michael Komape and education in rural areas.  Read more from Bongekile Macupe

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