On 20 January in 2014, five-year-old Michael Komape drowned after falling into a pit toilet at Mahlodumela Lower Primary school, in Chebeng village, outside Polokwane, in Limpopo.

Yet, more than seven years after the tragedy, many learners at public schools in the province are still forced to use old, dilapidated and dangerous pit toilets.

This, according to Michael’s older sister, Lydia Komape, is a clear indication that the Limpopo Department of Education and that national Department of Basic Education do not care about the safety of learners.

Speaking to Health-e News, Komape said that since the incident that took Michael’s life, not enough has been done by either department to eradicate dangerous pit toilets at public schools, something that bothers the family.

“Not enough has been done to address poor sanitation at schools. We’ve walked the journey of fighting for justice for my brother from the Department of Basic Education, pushing for the eradication of pit toilets at public schools in Limpopo. But, as family, we’ve realized that the department does not care about the safety of learners at Limpopo schools, perhaps because they are not directly affected,” said Komape.

On Friday last week, the Komape family – represented by public interest law firm SECTION27 – was back in the Limpopo High Court to fight for the enforcement of an earlier court order for the eradication of unsafe and unhygienic latrines at rural schools. In 2018, the Limpopo High Court ordered the Limpopo Department of Education and Department of Basic Education develop a plan to eradicate pit toilets.

Unconstitutional and unreasonable

However, the Komape family is arguing that the plan provided by government is unconstitutional and unreasonable, with pit toilets in Limpopo set to become a thing of the past only by 2030. Judgement was reserved in the case.

Meanwhile, Komape has called on the people of Limpopo to rally behind the family and join the fight against the continued use of pit toilets in school in the province.

“We have been fighting for the eradication of pit toilets at schools with the help of SECTION27, but I believe that we really need more people to join this fight in order for us to win this battle,” said Komape.

Komape added that she fails to understand why the department is dragging its feet on the eradication of pit toilets, as his brother’s death is evidence enough that pit toilets are not safe for use by school learners.

“What more do they want to happen before they eradicate dangerous pit toilets at our schools? Was Michael’s death not enough? How many children must lose their lives for them to take this matter serious? All we plead with them is to eradicate all pit toilets in Limpopo schools to ensure the safety of learners,” she said.

Speaking to Health-e News, Limpopo Secretary of the National Association of School Governing Bodies Prince Phandavhudzi agreed with Komape that the Department of Basic Education is taking too long to eradicate pit toilets at Limpopo schools.

Pleading for years

“It’s been years now of pleading with the provincial department of education to replace all pit toilets in schools in the Limpopo province, but so far they have not been able to do that. About 50% of our schools still use pit toilets which is something we must be worried about,” said Phandavhudzi.

According to him, pit toilets pose a danger and health hazard to learners who are forced to use such toilets while at school.

“Those pit toilets are not only unsafe, but also do not promote hygienic practices. Over the years, many learners have fallen into pit toilets at our schools, which is a clear indication that such toilets need to be replaced as a matter of urgency. The current pace at which the department plans to eradicate pit toilets means it will take many years before it is done,” said Phandavhudzi.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), poor sanitation is linked to the transmission of diseases such as cholera, diarrhoea, dysentery, hepatitis A, typhoid and polio, as well as exacerbating stunting.

Meanwhile, Mathanzima Mweli, director-general of the Department of Basic Education, said the use of pit toilets in Limpopo and other provinces will be a thing of the past in the next two years.

“I have resolved that come the 2022/23 financial year we will not have pit latrines anymore in this country. And we have been building beautiful toilets,” said Mweli. – Health-e News