This year’s theme for World Toilet Day, globally celebrated on November 19, is “Leaving No One Behind” — yet learners, predominantly in rural provinces, must use pit latrines.
Sibongile Teffo, an Equal Education community leader and former equaliser (a high school member of the organisation) recalls the problems she and her peers faced when using toilets at her school in Limpopo. They were either broken or had no doors.
“At my school, about 500 girls were expected to use eight toilets, four of which were VIPs [ventilated improved pit latrines] and the other four, plain pit latrines. When we used those toilets, we didn’t feel safe or comfortable … nothing ever changed when it came to the condition of our toilets. Even today, nothing’s changed.”
Sibongile was part of a group of equalisers in Ga-Mashashane, who began agitating for safe, “dignified” toilets and a reliable supply of water at public schools in Limpopo. Their experiences informed the beginning of Equal Education’s Limpopo Water and Sanitation campaign in 2017.
Goal six of the sustainable development goals — goals adopted by all United Nations member countries — is clean water and sanitation. The targets for this goal include achieving access to safe and affordable drinking water for all and adequate sanitation and hygiene for all.
When Equal Education members campaigned for the government’s adoption of the minimum uniform norms and standards for public school infrastructure regulations, many of us believed we would see an end to learners becoming injured or losing their lives because of unsafe sanitation structures. Although thousands of schools have been provided with water and decent toilets since Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga signed the schools Act into existence, far more progress could have been made in complying with the law if it wasn’t for the lack of political will, accountability and capacity.
The law came into effect just one year before the death of five-year-old Michael Komape, who fell into a pit toilet at his school in Limpopo.
The norms and standards outline the infrastructure conditions that all public schools must meet and sets legally binding deadlines by when it must be provided. The law bans plain pit latrines from schools, and stipulates that by November 2016, all schools should have been provided with water, toilets and electricity.
The Limpopo department of education failed to comply with this deadline. So, where did it go wrong?
In 2017, we inspected the infrastructure at 18 schools in Ga-Mashashane in the Capricorn district of Limpopo. We interviewed learners and teachers, did surveys and collected data. These visits were prompted by equalisers’ accounts of the effect that dire water and toilet conditions had on their schooling experience and their safety. Our visits were also prompted by the Limpopo education department’s 2017 norms and standards implementation plan. While the department admitted it did not know the sanitation conditions in 66% of schools, we found that of the 18 schools, 11 had only plain pit latrines and four schools had no water.
Further conversations with schools’ principals this year have revealed that progress to address these backlogs has been achingly slow. Five of these schools still have plain pit latrines and two do not have a reliable water source — contradicting the department of basic education’s data that there are no schools in the country without access to water. One principal said learners in his primary school have been using the same plain pit latrines for the past 37 years.
The Limpopo education department has claimed, among other things, that budgetary constraints are the reason it has been unable to meet the legally binding deadlines. But, the province’s latest norms and standards implementation and progress reports reveal a trend of under-expenditure on infrastructure grants since 2011. At a recent briefing to Parliament, the basic education department highlighted that the Limpopo department’s expenditure on its infrastructure budget, six months into the 2019-20 financial year, stands at only 24%.
We hope the new MEC of education in Limpopo, Polly Boshielo, commits to the statement she made in her maiden budget vote speech in July this year, that “there will be no talk of pit latrines in the next financial year”.
Zanele Modise is the Limpopo junior organiser at Equal Education