Our constitutional duty-bearers must urgently deliver proper toilets to learners – UP's Centre for Child Law

Posted on November 19, 2018

When nature calls, we need a toilet. But a significant number of South African learners don’t have one or don’t have a reliable one. Poor sanitation in schools is prevalent nationwide. Gauteng and the Western Cape, for instance, don’t have enough suitable sanitation facilities due to the influx of learners and the subsequent overcrowding.

It seems just like yesterday when we all read and heard the horror stories of six-year-old Michael Komape’s death in a pit latrine at school in 2014 and the drowning of Lumka Mketwa in a pit toilet at an Eastern Cape primary school earlier this year.

After Lumka’s death, the Minister of Basic Education admitted that the continued existence of old pit latrines is a serious hazard for learners in schools.

Pit toilets are still the only means of sanitation in most rural areas. South Africa has more than 23 000 public schools – almost half use pit latrines, which are often unsafe and unhygienic. Furthermore, sanitation is bad, and the conditions are intolerable for learners. In some rural schools teachers and learners have to answer nature’s call in open fields, as there are no toilets. This state of affairs infringes upon learners’ constitutional rights to equality, human dignity, life, environment, best interests and education.

School infrastructure has been the subject of much litigation in South African courts. 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 that resulted in an out-of-court settlement signed in 2011 in which the State undertook to spend R8.2 billion to eradicate mud schools nationally. As much as this case was about the refurbishment of schools, it was also partly about the lack of sufficient water and sanitation. The mud schools were in dire need: the schools’ buildings were made of mud, and there was no running water and no toilet facilities. 

More recently, the Polokwane High Court ordered the Department of Basic Education to fix inadequate and unsafe sanitation 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 possible to begin to address sanitation infrastructure at Limpopo schools only 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, learners are forced to make use of open dilapidated toilets, which offer very little, if any, privacy. The court in that case opined that:

“The right to basic education includes provision of adequate and safe toilets at public schools for learners, 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 degrades the environment, but in South Africa it’s a double whammy as it also violates learners’ rights to dignity and education. The link between the right to education and sanitation is an important one. Poor sanitation and lack of toilets in schools robs many black South African learners of an acceptable learning environment. Clearly this is an equality issue – why do some learners 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 in order to provide an adequate basic education for all South African learners.

When the Finance Minister delivered the 2018 Medium-Term Budget Policy Statement, it was encouraging to see that one of government’s urgent spending priorities was the eradication of pit latrines and the improvement of school sanitation. The commitment to provide sanitary pads in schools as well as no VAT tax on them, while encouraging, does not solve the problem of the absence of school sanitation infrastructure. If there are no properly functioning toilets or proper sanitation at schools, it means that 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 a lack of privacy.

While the government is making advancements in policies and in practice to better the country’s impoverished schools, poor sanitation and lack of toilets is still a harsh reality facing learners and teachers every day, causing absenteeism and even drop-outs. That is aside from the affront to dignity and equality that occurs each time a learner in the affected schools must heed the call of nature.  

This World Toilet Day, let us hope the deaths of Michael Komape and Lumka Mketwa has given impetus to our constitutional duty-bearers to urgently deliver proper toilets to learners.

Ms Isabel Magaya is a Project Co-ordinator at the Centre for Child Law at the University of Pretoria. Ms Magaya is available for interviews on this topic. To arrange an interview please contact Mr David Mtshali at 012 420 4502 or [email protected]

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