/ 25 April 2023

Pit toilets in schools violate human rights

Pit Latrines In Govan Mbeki Informal Settlement Photo Delwyn Verasamy
Pit latrines in Govan Mbeki municipality. A four year old child's body was found in a pit latrine. (Photo: Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

Everyone has the right  to basic education, according to section 29 (1) of the South African Constitution. The responsibilities of the state are clearly defined under this  section. Having the right to education means that every child in the country despite  their race and background is entitled to receive quality education. But over the years, there have been numerous occasions that showed the government has failed to protect, promote and fulfil this basic right. 

Although this section of the Constitution does not specify what this basic education encompasses, any person can determine what is associated with quality education. Quality  education means access to a school environment that is safe for teaching and  learning to take place, adequate school infrastructure and adequate facilities.  

A report written by the South African Human Rights Commission in 2021 stated that  pupils in the country risk falling into pit toilets daily, not only at school but at their homes. How is it that a post-apartheid education system reproduces a segregated education where “white” schools (since the apartheid era) continue to have strong school infrastructure conducive to teaching and learning, proper toilets that flush, and water safe enough for consumption while many “black” schools continue using pit toilets and don’t have safe drinking water? 

These schools in rural and township areas continue to find themselves in the same chronic inequalities as a result of the legacy of apartheid. The pit toilet system at schools is a product of the apartheid system.

Over the previous years, there have been reports of pupils falling into pit toilets, resulting in death, the most recent case being that of a black girl in grade R from the Eastern Cape. This is the same incident that the department of education denies had anything to do with the pit toilet. How many more  dead bodies must be found in school pit toilets until the  education department takes responsibility for failing to eradicate this death trap? 

A report written in July 2021 by the Human Rights Commission notes that millions of learners and teachers have no access to quality sanitation. Not only is this a violation of the right to education, but to safety and human dignity. The education department promised that the issue of pit toilets would be resolved in 2015. Schools like Khanyisani Primary School in Kwa-Zulu-Natal continue to wait for this promise to be fulfilled. This is after Education Minister Angie Motshekga made another promise to execute the project to provide normal toilets by June 2023, which is two months from now. And schools were also promised years ago that water tanks would be provided, but this has not happened.  

The Constitution gives the minister of education the responsibility of planning, provision, financing, staffing, management, governance, monitoring, evaluation and well-being of the  education system. 

Failure by the government to attend to serious matters such as pit latrines continues as a result of corruption linked to service delivery. This is all happening despite being in a 21st century country with a Constitution concerned with consensus-building and human rights. The actions of the education department are a reminder that words in the Constitution become meaningless without a progressive government. Our government is clearly one that is out of touch with the  realities of citizens, hence its inability to take the suffering of its people seriously along with taking the necessary measures to execute policy. 

One would think the changes initiated for people’s education in the 1970s  and 1980s would be evident in not only an improved but a transformed schooling experience of the black majority. The constant class struggle in the education system and with service delivery must be recognised as a national crisis by the government. 

The department of  education must prioritise the sanitation problem. 

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.