SIBUSISO KHASA: Back to school, back to pit latrine stink

Every year around this time social media is awash with images of cute bundles of joy in their school uniforms ready for their first day at school or excited children going back to school. It is a proud moment for many parents, but the reality is that some of the children might not return home or return home sick, due to the government's failure to fulfil its obligations.

Sanitation is a basic human right that the government is supposed to respect, promote and protect, but this is not the case in 5,167 schools that do not have proper ablution facilities and still use pit toilets. These pit toilets are not only violating the right to sanitation, but also the rights to health, dignity and threaten the right to life. Children like Lister Magongwa, Michael Komape, Siyamthanda Mtunu and Lumka Mketwa lost their lives while trying to use these facilities.

According to a report released in September 2021 by the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), over a million pupils and teachers are affected by the challenges of poor sanitation in our schools. In the Eastern Cape alone [almost half (44%) of schools use pit toilets]( And Sanitation Report - 28 SeptemberPM.pdf) as their primary ablution facilities. A further 30% of schools in the province use ventilated improved pit latrines. In KwaZulu-Natal, 83% of schools are primarily reliant on pit latrines and ventilated improved pit latrines. Ventilated pit latrines are said to be better than the ordinary pit latrines because they are designed to minimise odour and flies.

The SAHRC report also shows that some schools do not even have sanitation facilities, with nearly 200 of them in the Eastern Cape. However, this is disputed by the Department of Basic Education (DBE), which claims that “there are no schools that reported that they have no toilets” in 2021.

The DBE has been kicking the can down the road when it comes to eradicating pit latrines and ensuring that all schools have proper and safe sanitation facilities. The department had planned to eradicate pit latrines by March this year, but last year it told the Polokwane High Court that in provinces like Limpopo this can only be achieved by 2031. However, the court agreed with civil society organisations that the department’s plan was unconstitutional. The SAHRC also intends to take the education departments in Mpumalanga, the North West, the Free State, KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape to court as part of its mission to eradicate pit toilets.

It is disturbing that the DBE has to be dragged to court in order to speed up its plans to eradicate pit latrines. Sanitation is a basic human right enshrined in our Constitution.

During her media briefing on earlier this month, the Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshekga, mentioned that under the Sanitation Appropriate for Education programme they “have replaced basic pit toilets at… 1,439 schools”. This figure masks the fact that the department did not even meet its own target of supplying 600 schools with “dignified” sanitation for the 2020/21 financial year. The DBE only provided “dignified” sanitation to 298 schools in the previous financial year. The department has blamed this on the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, saying “more than 300 additional sanitation projects could not be completed due to the impact of the Covid-19 lockdown when all business had come to a standstill”.

There also appears to be inconsistencies in the data provided by the department when it comes to the number of schools with pit latrines in South Africa. As mentioned at the beginning of this article , the department’s 2020/2021 annual report mentions that there are 5,167 schools with pit toilets, but the Minister claims that by “10 January 2022, we remain with 1,423 schools, where basic pit toilets need to be replaced. All of these are scheduled for completion in 2022/23”.

While we do acknowledge the impact of the pandemic, it is no excuse for the government's continued failure to deal with the issue of pit latrines. It has had several opportunities and it has been dragging its feet. The DBE has a history of not properly spending its infrastructure budget, which has led to a delay in infrastructure development.

Every child in this country has a right to go to school and to feel safe while there. With many schools still relying on pit latrines or with no sanitation facilities, this is not a reality for many of them. The lack of these basic services also hampers education.

So while we enjoy seeing those cute images of children on their first day at school or going back to school, it is important that we remain realistic about the issues that face the sector and put pressure on the department to fulfil its obligations so that the children of this country have a fighting chance.

Sibusiso Khasa is a campaigner at Amnesty International South Africa.