Running water, safe and clean classrooms, and actual toilet facilities are a luxury for most children attending schools in rural Vhembe. They make do with dilapidated classrooms, water shortages and pit toilets.

Like the rest of South African children, these pupils have been at home since the Covid-19 pandemic forced the government to close schools on March 18. The Minister of Basic Education has since announced that matrics and grade 7s might return to class on June 1, provided certain conditions in terms of hygiene are met. They would also take advice from the National Command Council.

Is one month enough time for these schools to fix their broken classrooms, provide a constant supply of clean water and ensure children will not have to use pit toilets?

Highly unlikely is the answer from the pupils, activists and SGBs.

Progressive Student Movement (PSM) president, Kabelo Nthekiso, says the government has been unable to solve these problems in the last decade.

“It is no science fiction that we have to concede to the realization that we cannot rule this year null and void especially with regard to education but we wish to reiterate our point that the department of education should not rush the decision to return learners to class without proper health mechanisms being put in place”, says Nthekiso.

The National Department of Health and World Health Organisation has urged people to regularly wash their hands for at least 20 seconds with water and soap. But this is next to impossible for many communities in Vhembe.

A grade 12 learner at Muthuhadini combined school in Elim, Justice Ramasimu says he is not sure if he is ready to go back to class anytime soon.

“Our school often experiences water shortages, despite having a borehole within the school premises which might make it impossible for us to always practice proper hygiene by washing our hands all the time while at school”, says Ramasimu.

Pupils are usually told that a broken pump is causing the lack of water. Most of the toilets at the school are also broken, leaving children with no option but to use a pit latrine.

“We also have a shortage of toilets as one has to always wait for his/her turn at the queue to use the toilet. I do not even feel safe to go back to school anytime soon until a cure for Covid-19 has been found, as much as I want to learn and complete my grade 12 studies this year, I feel it’s not safe for us to be going back to school at the moment”, he says.

The situation is much the same a few kilometers down the road at Rivoni school for the blind. The community’s pleas for a new school and accommodation has fallen on deaf ears.

Earlier this year, Health-e news reported on the shortage of teaching aids at the school which caters mostly for blind and partially blind learners. It has forced pupils to share the few old working braille machines the school does have. 

The chairperson of School Governing Body(SGB) at Waterval High, outside Elim, Endy Munyai says that it will be impossible for its pupils to go back to classes, as the school does not have a single working toilet.

“Long before the lockdown, we have been complaining to the provincial department of education for them to at least build us toilets but all our pleas always fell on deaf ears. There is no way we can send our children to a school without a toilet especially during this time when we are being told to always practice proper hygiene. Where will learners relieve themselves when a call of nature comes as the school does not have any toilet”, he says.

The school which has about 800 children enrolled also has a shortage of classrooms. They were forced to abandon a dilapidated block of classrooms as the ceilings were falling down.

“It will be impossible for us to send learners to a school like that, and we do not think they will be able to rebuild those classrooms and toilets in a few days as they have failed to do so in years. We are not ready to gamble with the lives of our children,” says Munyai.

The picture is exactly the same at Mabila Primary school, outside Thohoyandou. The school’s SGB chairperson, Eric Negondeni says that the school does not have a single working toilet.

“(This is) despite building materials having been delivered at the school about a year ago. We are still waiting for the department to send a contractor but nothing is being done. We also do not have any form of water supply hence we can never support a call to re-open schools if such challenges are yet to be addressed.”

Attempts to get comments from the Provincial Department of health failed. -Health-e News.