*Published by Mail & Guardian (online) on 19 November

By Zanele Modise, Equal Education Limpopo Junior Organiser

This year’s theme for World Toilet Day, globally celebrated on 19 November, was “Leaving No One Behind” – yet hundreds of thousands of learners, predominantly in rural provinces, must use unsafe and undignified sanitation in their schools.  

Sibongile Teffo, an Equal Education (EE) Community Leader (CL) and former Equaliser (EE high school-going member) recalls the challenges she and her peers faced when it came to using something as basic as a toilet, at her high school in Limpopo. It was difficult for girl learners to use most of the toilets on the school premises, as they were either broken or had no doors ‒ it was particularly painful to do so during menstruation. “At my school, about 500 girls were expected to use eight toilets, four of which were VIPs [ventilated improved pit latrines] and the other four, plain pit latrines. When we used those toilets, we didn’t feel safe or comfortable. I spent five years at my old high school, and in that time nothing ever changed when it came to the condition of our toilets. Even today, nothing’s changed.” 

Sibongile was part of a group of Equalisers in Ga-Mashashane, who began agitating for safe and dignified toilets, as well as reliable access to water for all public schools across Limpopo. Their experiences informed the beginning of EE’s Limpopo Water and Sanitation campaign in 2017. Goal six of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – goals adopted by all United Nations member countries –  is clean water and sanitation. The targets for this goal include achieving universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all; and achieving access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all, and ending open defecation.

When EE members campaigned for government’s adoption of the Minimum Uniform Norms and Standards for Public School Infrastructure (the national school infrastructure law), many of us believed we would see an end  to learners becoming injured or losing their lives because of unsafe sanitation structures. And while thousands of schools have been provided with water and decent toilets since we got Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga to sign the law into existence, far more progress could have been made in complying with the law if it wasn’t for the lack of political will, lack of accountability and lack of capacity. 

The law came into effect just one year before the tragic death of a five-year-old learner, Michael Komape, who fell into a dilapidated plain pit toilet at his school in Limpopo. Sadly, to this day, this is the reality faced by many learners in the province. 

The Norms and Standards outline the infrastructure conditions that all public schools must meet and sets legally binding deadlines by when infrastructure must be provided. Importantly, the law bans plain pit latrines from schools, and clearly stipulates that by November 2016, all schools should have been provided with water, toilets and electricity. 

The Limpopo Department of Education (LDoE)  failed to comply with this deadline.

So, where did the LDoE go wrong?

In 2017, we inspected the infrastructure at 18 schools in Ga-Mashashane in the Capricorn district of Limpopo. We interviewed learners and teachers, conducted surveys and collected data. These visits were prompted by Equalisers’ accounts of the impact that dire water and toilet conditions had on their schooling experience and their safety. In addition, our visits were also prompted by the LDoE’s 2017 Norms and Standards implementation plan, which clearly demonstrated a lack of knowledge of crisis facing schools.

While the LDoE admitted that it did not know the sanitation conditions in 66% of schools, we found that of the 18 schools, 11 had only plain pit latrines as a form of sanitation and four schools had no access to water at all. Further conversations with schools principals this year have revealed that progress to address these backlogs has been achingly slow. We have found that five of these schools still only use plain pit latrines and two do not have reliable access to water – contradicting the Department of Basic Education’s (DBE) data, that there are no schools in the country without access to water. One principal lamented that learners in his primary school have been using the same plain pit latrines for the past 37 years! 

The existence of plain pit latrines in schools not only places learners and teachers at risk, but also violates the law.

The LDoE has claimed, among other things, that budgetary constraints are the reason it has been unable to meet the legally binding deadlines of the Norms and Standards.  But, the province’s latest Norms and Standards implementation and progress reports reveal a trend of under-expenditure on infrastructure grants since 2011. At a recent briefing to Parliament, the DBE highlighted that the LDoE’s expenditure on its infrastructure budget, six months into the 2019/20 financial year, stands at only 24%.

We know that a lack of planning, urgency and political will, have hindered the provision of safe and dignified sanitation to learners in Limpopo. 

We hope that the new MEC of Education in the province, Polly Boshielo commits to the statement she made in her maiden budget vote speech in July this year, that “there will be no talk of pit latrines in the next financial year”. We hope the MEC keeps her word and heeds the call to leave no one behind.