At a high school in rural northern South Africa, more than 300 students and their teachers share three toilets, and that horribly one-sided number isn’t the worst of the problem.

The three toilets are pit latrines, actually 10-foot-deep holes in the ground that students line up during their lunch break to use.

The pit toilets at Seipone High School in Ga-Mashashane village are at least covered with white toilet seats and surrounded by brick structures. Some of the pit latrines still in use in more than 3,300 schools in poor, mostly rural areas of South Africa are not being used.

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It’s a shameful situation for a country called Africa’s most developed and a testament to its serious problems with poverty and inequality, say rights groups, who are pushing the South African government to end substandard school facilities for good.

Unsanitary toilets also pose a much more immediate danger.

The sight that greeted James Kamape one day in January 2014 in the nearby village of Chebeng is horrifying in every way.

He was called and asked to hurry to the kindergarten to his 5-year-old son. A little boy, Michael, was found dead, drowned at the bottom of a toilet. Michael’s body was not even recovered from the pool of water mixed with feces and urine at the bottom of the pit he fell into when his father got there.

“What really hurt me about the Michael incident is that the people who were there saw him fall in the toilet, but they didn’t remove him,” James Komape said. “They said they were waiting for the authorities to arrive and I told them if they had removed him quickly, maybe he could have survived.”

It was Michael Komape’s first week at his new school and his gruesome death has angered many South Africans. His family took the Limpopo provincial education department to court and won the case, seeking damages. Court rulings later forced the South African government to urgently address the problem of pit toilets in schools.

But Michael Komape’s tragedy was not an isolated one. Other young children have also drowned in toilets over the past ten years, one a girl last month, the other a boy in March. There are no reliable numbers to say how many children have died in pit latrines.

Toilets that have an outlet that is used for intermittent flushing are cheaper and more practical for poor schools because they do not depend on a constant supply of running water.

At Jupiter Preschool and Nursery in the same Limpopo province where Michael died, children as young as 3 years old still use pit toilets that do not have a proper seat and instead have a hole cut in a concrete slab that opens into a pit below.

“It’s not very good because children can fall in the toilet,” said the school’s principal, Florina Ledwaba. “We have to watch them (children) every time. What if they’re walking and you can’t see them? not safe at all.”

Human rights group Equal Education inspected toilets in South African schools. Tiny Lebela, the group’s organizer, expresses frustration that an issue that should be the government’s top priority — the safety of children in their schools — has still not been addressed.

The South African government has pledged to replace all toilets in schools across the country by March 31 this year. This did not happen. Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga said 3,398 schools were still using latrines and the deadline to eliminate them had been pushed back to 2025.

Lebela said “it speaks to how we perceive people in rural areas”.

“We tell them they don’t deserve dignity, so we’re not going to give you a rudimentary toilet. We are not going to give it to you because you have already used it (pit toilets),” she said. “So what’s another year, or two years, or 10, or decades? We tell them that you are not worthy of dignity.’

Section27 is another human rights group pushing for the eradication of pit latrines in favor of “safe and dignified sanitation facilities”. Section27 supported the family of Michael Komape in their legal action against the local and national departments of education, and they sought a court order requiring the authorities to provide updated information every six months on schools in Limpopo province that use pit latrines and plans to replacements.

Section27 has named its system for tracking the government’s work the Michael Komape Sanitation Progress Monitor, and it can use the information to hold the education department to account.

The department has made some progress in reducing the number of schools using pit latrines in Limpopo from 363 in 2021 to 210 schools now. But James Komape said the government had not lived up to its side of the deal to remove pit latrines and “many children are still in real danger”.

At Seipone High School, the pit toilets are officially called the improved ventilation toilets and are known as “VIP toilets”. They are anything but. There is anger and now pushback from students.

“Our health also matters, (we) can’t use toilets like this,” said Teboga Makgoka, a 17-year-old student representative.


More AP Africa news: https://apnews.com/hub/africa

This story was originally published May 22, 2023 1:52 am.


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