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A History of Equal Education’s School Sanitation Campaign in Gauteng

By Brad Brockman, General Secretary, Equal Education.

This past Saturday, 13 September, Equal Education (EE) Gauteng held a very successful march for proper school sanitation. About 2 000 students and parents from Tembisa, Kwa Thema, Daveyton and Tsakane attended the march to the Gauteng Department of Education’s (GDE) offices in central Johannesburg, where a memorandum was handed over to Gauteng Education MEC Panyaza Lesufi. Having supported the Gauteng comrades who led the campaign, as well as having been at Saturday’s march, these are my reflections on both.

EE has been campaigning for improved school sanitation in Gauteng for over a year. The campaign originated in the Tembisa youth group, where members first raised the issue as having a seriously negative impact on their education, health and dignity. In August and September last year, equalizers did a two-week sanitation audit of 11 of the 13 high schools in Tembisa, noting the conditions in their toilets twice a day for this whole period. This research found that in over half the schools, more than 100 students had to share a single, working toilet. This formed the evidence base of the campaign, and its accuracy – as well as that of subsequent research – has been a key strength of the campaign.

EE presented its research to the local District Director, Mr Ephraim Tau and to former Gauteng MEC for Education Barbara Creecy, and demanded that they provide urgent relief to schools in Tembisa, as well as provide a more long-term plan to address the crisis. After not getting any response from the Gauteng Department of Education (GDE), and despite the District Director acknowledging that EE’s characterisation of the situation in Tembisa was accurate, EE went public on World Toilet Day, 19 November 2013. EE’s press release on that day pointed out that in the overcrowded Johannesburg Medium A Prison 65 men share a single working toilet, as opposed to over 100 students in Tembisa high schools. The release generated widespread media coverage and spurred MEC Creecy into taking action.

A meeting was held between EE and the MEC on 26 November, attended by Co-Heads of EE Gauteng Adam Bradlow and Tshepo Motsepe, EE spokesperson Nombulelo Nyathela and youth organiser Lerato Morotolo. At the meeting MEC Creecy said that she would address the situation in Tembisa at the start of the next year, and that she had also a long-term sanitation plan for schools in Tembisa. However, the MEC refused to share this plan with us, despite following up in writing with her about this afterwards. On 12 January 2014, MEC Creecy visited Masiqhakaze High School in Tembisa to clean toilets there, and to announce that she would be delivering 10 pre-fabricated toilet blocks to 5 schools in Tembisa, and an additional 10 to other schools in Gauteng. She also said that she would be sending contractors to repair toilets in Tembisa, as well as to 60 other schools in Gauteng.

The toilet blocks were delivered in Tembisa, and contractors did come out and do some repairs at schools in the area. However, by the time that MEC Creecy left her post in May the toilet blocks were still not open, and many schools in the area were still in need of urgent sanitation repairs. MEC Creecy had also not developed a long-term sanitation plan for Tembisa or Gauteng.

In the interim, equalisers and parent members ran sanitation workshops for over 5,000 students to raise awareness about the need to keep school toilets clean. They also started establishing or, where necessary, revitalising school Environment Committees. These are committees of students, parents and teachers in Tembisa responsible for monitoring the school environment, including toilets.

Mr Panyaza Lesufi took over as Gauteng MEC for Education at the end of May. Lesufi had previously worked as Minister Motshekga’s spokesperson, and in that capacity had disagreed with and publicly attacked EE on many occasions. He is also originally from Tembisa. On 8 July of this year EE Gauteng met with the new MEC to introduce themselves, hear about his plans for Gauteng and raise the school sanitation crisis in Tembisa with him directly. Lesufi promised to get back to us by 14 July on the situation in Tembisa, and said that he would unblock all school toilets in Gauteng by 31 August – the end of his first 100 days in office. On 15 July, at a public event in Tembisa where Lesufi announced his plans for Gauteng education, he repeated his promise to unblock all toilets by 31 August.

In the weeks thereafter, EE followed up with MEC Lesufi, writing him two letters, phoning and emailing officials in his office. However, we got no response. In August, our members in Kwa-Thema and Daveyton also did a sanitation audit in their schools. This audit showed that on any given day, up to 80 toilets were blocked or closed in these areas. On 1 September, we sent a letter to MEC Lesufi stating that since he was ignoring us, we would be marching to his office on 13 September. In the two weeks that followed equalizers in Tembisa reported contractors arriving overnight at their schools, cleaning and unblocking toilets, opening the pre-fabricated toilet blocks, fixing the pipes, painting the walls, fitting new taps and windows. Contractors were also seen on the premises at a few of the schools in Kwa-Thema and Daveyton.

On 11 September, two days before our march, MEC Lesufi called a special press conference in Tembisa, where he announced that he had identified 580 schools in Gauteng for sanitation repairs – at a cost of R150 million – and that since he had taken office, the GDE had completed repairs at 400 of these schools. The MEC also said that all 51 schools in Tembisa would have their sanitation upgraded, and that he would not only be accepting the memorandum at EE’s march, but that he would be marching with us because he agreed with our demands. On Friday morning, the day before the Saturday march, Adam, Tshepo, Kuhle Mtana and Nyiko Sithole (two equalizers), and Sabelo Mahoi and Tracey Malawana (two youth organisers) met with the MEC at his office, at his invitation. At the meeting the MEC presented a progress report on the GDE’s sanitation work, including a full and detailed schedule of their plans for Tembisa.

A lot of preparation went into making the march a success. For weeks equalizers, youth organisers and staff members handed out pamphlets in schools and around the communities of Tembisa, Kwa-Thema, Daveyton and Tskane; logistics including permissions, food, water, transport, t-shirts and sound was organised; and press statements released to raise awareness of the march, and encourage supporters and journalists to attend. I arrived in Gauteng only a few days before the march, and comrades were hard at work, prepared and excited for the march. Adam, Tshepo, Lerato Mohlabi, Sam Shapiro, Nombulelo, Sfiso Mollo, Freddy Mathekga, Kholwane Wahid, Tracey Malawana, Lerato Morotolo and all Gauteng facilitators deserve a huge amount of credit for the work that they put into the march, as well as their performance on the day.

The day ran smoothly and there was great spirit and energy on the march. After assembling at Beyers Naude Square opposite the Gauteng Legislature, the 2 000 marchers proceeded to the Gauteng Department of Education (GDE) offices in Commissioner Street in Johannesburg. Here are some photos as well as some great video coverage on SABC and E-TV, and articles published on the Media 24 and Times Live websites.

MEC Lesufi, who had joined the march, and even donned an EE t-shirt, accepted the memorandum before offering a response to the crowd. EE’s memorandum credited the MEC for engaging with EE in a constructive and positive manner, and prioritising the issue of school sanitation through his stated allocation of R150 million towards addressing the issue. We acknowledged the work that the GDE had already done to fix school sanitation in Tembisa, where the campaign originated. However, we also demanded that he release the names of the 580 schools identified for sanitation upgrades, including information about what the 400 schools he said had already been upgraded have received, and what the rest of the schools will receive and by when. We reiterated our demand for a long-term plan to address the sanitation crisis in all Gauteng schools, which would include defining an appropriate standard, setting time-frames for implementation and doing all of this in a transparent and accountable manner, and committed ourselves to seeing this issue through.

It is clear that what started off as the Tembisa sanitation campaign has been hugely successful. It has succeeded in getting the MEC to direct R150 million towards improving sanitation in township schools in Gauteng, and making the issue a serious policy priority for the GDE. The campaign has already delivered tangible results to equalizers and other students in Tembisa, and, if MEC Lesufi is correct, already in a total of 400 schools in Gauteng. If all 580 schools have their sanitation upgraded, about 600 000 students will benefit directly from our activism. This is a huge and historic achievement for EE.

The campaign has shown how to build on the momentum and legal requirements of the Minimum Norms and Standards for School Infrastructure, which came into force at the end of November 2013. Every province is required to ensure that all schools with no sanitation have this by 2016, and that all schools are up to the appropriate standard of sanitation by 2020. But we aren’t waiting for these deadlines. In addition to pushing each province to table its implementation plan by November this year, we are already campaigning for the practical realisation of the norms and standards, on the ground. That’s what this campaign is about.

It is also clear that the Gauteng comrades managed to do certain key things very well in this campaign. These include: identifying the right issue – one that our members and other students feel strongly about, and on which tangible action can be taken; conducting rigorous research into the situation at schools, and developing an understanding of the underlying factors, as well as what interventions can remedy the situation; making an effort to inform and involve equalizers throughout, including by getting them to do research, clean toilets, educate and mobilise other students; articulating the issues clearly and powerfully, in a way that resonates with ordinary people, and articulating demands that are practicable; making effective use of the media; persisting – even when prospects for success looked doubtful; and finally, by mobilising our members and bringing them out onto the street in a powerful show of force on Saturday.

There are also things which we could have done differently and better. For example, considering the impact Saturday’s march had on MEC Lesufi, we should probably have brought our members out on the street earlier – even when MEC Creecy was still in office. It’s important that when we look back on the campaign that we look at the many things we did well, as well as the things which in hindsight, we could have done differently. This is how we learn and improve, and ultimately achieve more.

I would like to make special mention of Adam Bradlow and Tshepo Motsepe, our Co-Heads in Gauteng, under whose leadership this campaign was carried out. At the same time I would like t to acknowledge the work of all EE Gauteng staff and facilitators, who are unfortunately too many to name individually! You comrades have pointed the way for us in the Western Cape, Limpopo, KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape, and we salute you.

Viva EE

Viva!

Carla GoldsteinA History of Equal Education’s School Sanitation Campaign in Gauteng