Eight years after Michael Komape’s death, we visit Limpopo schools to see if their toilets have improved

  • Most schools in the Mopani District in Limpopo still have unhygienic and dangerous pit toilets.
  • A court ruling last year ordered the provincial government to take steps to eliminate pit toilets from schools.
  • We visited several schools in the Mopani District to find out about their toilets.

Parents in the Mopani District in Limpopo say they have given up hope that the provincial education department will install safe and hygienic toilets at their children’s schools.

Last year, the High Court in Limpopo handed down judgment in the “Michael Komape trial”, compelling the state to provide a list of schools with pit toilets, along with plans to eradicate it within 90 days and to report every six months on progress.

Michael Komape was five years old when he drowned in a pit toilet at his school near Polokwane in 2014. His death caused an outrage and put the use of pit toilets in some 1 500 schools across the province under scrutiny.

Earlier this month, we visited primary and high schools in Mpepule, Ga-Abel, Ga-Kgapane, Madibeng, Moohokoni and Lekgawereng. All still use pit latrines.

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Open pit toilets at Mahekgwe primary school.

Mahekgwe

At Mahekgwe Primary School, near Bolobedu, learners share three pit toilets and seven mobile toilets. The pit toilets are uncovered.

“We tried so many times to speak to the Department of Education to assist us to close these open pits. I just hope nothing bad happens one day because we are dealing with young children,” said the principal, Shadrack Moshia.

He said the school had 100 learners and four teachers.

Rosina Thele, whose grandchild is in Grade 4, said it felt as though the government had forgotten about learners in Mahekgwe.

The school is dilapidated, the roof is rusting and windows are broken. Meals for learners are cooked in a shack.

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One of four pit toilets used by both boys and girls at Mohookone primary school. There were faeces and urine on the seats and floor of the stalls.

Mohookone

At Mohookone Primary School, there were four pit toilets used by both girls and boys. There were faeces and urine on the seats and floors of the stalls.

“These toilets were built by the community years back. The children have been using them for years and we have no choice … New toilets are still being built as you can see,” said the principal, Frank Itswene, pointing to a construction site on the grounds.

School governing body chairperson Eddie Machete accused provincial officials and MEC Polly Boshielo of “failing us because these are not good toilets for children”.

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Five mobile toilets at Masokisi primary school delivered in 2020 in response to an instruction under the national State of Disaster regulations to mitigate the spread of Covid.

Masokisi

Masokisi Primary School has 98 learners who share two pit toilets and five rental mobile toilets.

A parent, Modjadji Kapa, asked: “Why can’t our government just build our children flushing toilets?

“When they brought mobile toilets, we thought they would be building proper toilets soon, but it’s been two years.”

READ | More than R300m spent in last 3 years to eradicate pit toilets at schools

Most of the mobile toilets at the schools we visited were only delivered in 2020, in response to an instruction under the national State of Disaster regulations to mitigate Covid infections and improve hygiene at schools.

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The top of a normal chair seat was cut out and used as the toilet seat for a pit toilet at Mpepule Primary in Lekgwareng, Limpopo.

Lekgwareng

We were told the department built pit toilets at Lekgwareng Primary School and Mpepule Primary School when it built the schools in early 2000.

At Lekgwareng, there are four pit toilets for girls and four for boys. The toilets for boys are without stalls.

At Mpepule, one of the toilets had a normal chair, which had been cut to be used as a toilet seat. The seat was covered in faeces.

At Matarapane High School, the toilets, built by the community, were in a bad state. A senior teacher, who asked to remain anonymous, told us the poor sanitation at the school was a health risk. The seats are dirty and bricks are used to keep some of the toilet seats in place.

Civil society’s fight against pit toilets

SECTION27 has been in a long legal battle with the state over its plans to eradicate pit toilets in schools. The organisation said the government’s most recent plan to replace these toilets appears promising.

The organisation had previously argued in court that the state’s plans were not clear and were inconsistent with the basic norms and standards for school infrastructure.

“I’m unfortunately unable to share the plan with you at this moment. We are analysing it and will release our own report next week,” said Motheo Brodie of SECTION27.

“It’s extremely concerning that, in 2022, learners still have to use unsafe and undignified school sanitation. Pit toilets pose a fatal risk to the lives, safety and health of learners at our schools,” he said.

The department had previously stated that it would be able to do away with pit toilets by 2031. The department has until the end of June to submit a progress report.

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An exhibit showing school children who have died in pit latrines was put up outside the Limpopo High Court in August 2021. Archive photo: Ciaran Ryan

Education department

GroundUp first contacted provincial education spokesperson, Tidimalo Chuene, on 6 June to ask about its reports to the court on progress to do away with pit toilets at schools.

On 7 June, she said: “I need an extension on the deadline to respond. There is information that I’m still supposed to receive from our infrastructure team. I will respond as soon as I receive it.”

Following several calls and messages, Chuene promised again on 13 June to respond “as soon as possible”.

Our attempts to get comment since then have been ignored.

According to a spokesperson for the national education department, Terence Khala, there are 3 701 public schools in the province.

He explained that schools are divided into three categories:

  • Priority one schools have “inappropriate sanitation” and either have no appropriate toilets or there may be inappropriate toilets that should be demolished;
  • Priority two schools have “inadequate sanitation”, which means they either have some appropriate toilets, a number of the toilets don’t work or there may be inappropriate toilets that should be demolished; and
  • Priority three schools have “compliant sanitation”, with a number of toilets that may need refurbishment or there may be inappropriate toilets that should be demolished.

Khala said the province has 380 schools in Priority one, 1 798 in Priority two and 1 523 schools in Priority three.

Khala said that, of the Priority one schools, 158 had already completed sanitation projects; 337 had been completed for Priority two; and 902 for Priority three.

The national department did not answer detailed questions about the toilets at the schools we visited, but said that R140 million had been allocated to Limpopo in the 2022/2023 financial year for the construction of new toilets.

Ezekiel Kekana is an Open Society Foundation Fellow at Wits University.


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