Equal Education has called for the dismissal of Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga and Eastern Cape Education MEC Mandla Makupula.
This comes after another child, Viwe Jali (Lumka Mketwa) died in a pit latrine on Monday, 12 March.
That Monday, loved ones and school staff looked everywhere for Viwe. Her body lay in a pit latrine overnight at Luna Primary School in Nyaka village, under the Mizize administration in Mbizana municipality, Eastern Cape.
She was only found on Tuesday.
Viwe’s father, Vuyani Mketwa, said the family was not coping. “We do not understand how this happened.”
Mketwa said they had last saw Viwe on Monday morning as she was leaving for school. He said her teacher told him she was last seen at 1pm just before school ended at 1.30pm.
At a press briefing on Thursday, Motshekga committed to abide by the Presidency’s instructions for an audit of school sanitation facilities within three months.
She was addressing the media after calling all education MECs, education department heads and infrastructure officials to attend an urgent Council of Education Ministers (CEM) meeting in Kempton Park, Gauteng on 22 March.
Motshekga’s intervention came after President Cyril Ramaphosa directed her to conduct an audit of all learning facilities with unsafe structures, especially unsafe ablution facilities, within a month and to present him with a plan to rectify the challenges, as an emergency interim measure while rolling out proper infrastructure, within three months.
“The plan to eliminate unsafe ablution facilities will be participatory, with civil society being consulted. To this end, he further welcomes input by civil society organizations who continue to champion the struggle for safe and decent school infrastructure,” said Ramaphosa.
The minister called a press conference to address this.
Motshekga said one of their biggest challenges, which affected half of their schools, was that old pit toilets remained on site despite the construction of alternative ablution facilities. The audit would include the schools which needed to have these pit toilets demolished.
“Other schools had inadequate sanitation, especially in Gauteng where overcrowding was being experienced. Where schools had Grade R pupils, the audit should establish if there were toilets that are fit for smaller pupils,” said the minister.
But Equal Education called this another delay tactic by the minister.
“It is outrageous that, in 2018, there is still a need to audit the status of sanitation at our schools. Or is this another delay tactic,” said Inside Education’s Amanda Rinquest.
Rinquest said it was shocking that, even now, the minister behaves as if the Norms and Standards law does not exist, and President Ramaphosa behaves as if he has no knowledge thereof.
“Motshekga’s media ignores the violation of the law. It makes no mention of how she is fighting in court to keep the loopholes in the law – loopholes that indefinitely lock learners in poor communities in undignified and dangerous schools. It makes no mention of the numerous annual plans and reports which each MEC should, in terms of the Norms and Standards law, have provided to her,” said Ringquest.
She added that if South Africans are to believe in President Cyril Ramaphosa’s “new dawn”, then government must adhere to the school infrastructure law, and the deadlines that it stipulates.
She refers to the Regulations Relating to Minimum Uniform Norms and Standards for School Infrastructure document already recommended to the minister.
This document already sets out deadlines for fixing infrastructure in schools.
Ringquest said Motshekga has been bound by a law since November 2013 to fix infrastructure standards for each school. It says that by 29 November 2016, schools must have been provided with access to water, electricity and decent sanitation. By that same date, all schools built entirely from inappropriate materials (mud, asbestos, wood) ought to have been eradicated. The law explicitly says that plain pit latrines are not allowed at schools.
“Despite this, less than two months after the law came into existence, 5-year-old Michael Komape drowned in a dilapidated pit latrine at his school in Chebeng Village, Limpopo,” said Rinquest.
Michael’s lifeless body was discovered by his mother on January 20, 2014. His hand protruded from a pool of human excrement in one of the pit latrines at Mahlodumela Lower Primary School in Chebeng Village.
The school principal had written numerous letters to the Department of Education in Limpopo asking for new toilets to be built for safety reasons.
The letters went unanswered.
Equal Education wrote that over 9000 schools in South Africa use pit latrines. The organisation said that these were the only forms of toilets at these schools.
On 15 March, Equal Education and Basic Education for All (Befa) took the Department of Basic Education (DBE) to Bisho High Court challenging the school infrastructure law. They, represented by the Equal Education Law Centre (EELC) and Section 27 respectively, questioned the constitutionality of regulations put in place by DBE that removes the department from complete responsibility.
These regulations were put in place in November 2013 and only prescribe the minimum requirements for safe and adequate school infrastructure, in line with the learners’ right to basic education. However, Befa and Equal Education make the case that schools must have decent toilets, electricity, water, fencing, classroom numbers, libraries, laboratories and sports fields.
Advocate Chris Erasmus submitted court papers in the minister’s defence. The defence said it was common cause that the implementation of the norms and standards was subject to the resources and co-operation of other government agencies and entities responsible for infrastructure.
The defence held that other departments such as Water and Sanitation and Public Works should also be held accountable.
The minister’s defence read: “For instance, this will include some of the departments such as the Minister of Public Works being responsible for infrastructure of the State in general, the ministeries of Water and Sanitation bring responsible for infrastructure relating to water and sanitation and the Minister of Energy being responsible for the provision of electrical infrastructure. None of these entities have been cited as respondents, despite a list of other respondents having been identified as necessary parties.”
Legal counsel for Equal Education, Advocate Geoff Budlender SC, said his client has issue with the way the law currently reads. He made note of the loopholes.
“The loopholes in the law mean that communities must accept that ‘some unspecified person, in some unspecified manner, at some unspecified time’, will fix schools,” said Budlender.
Ringquest said the released infrastructure reports by Education MECs brazenly state that the deadlines stipulated by the law would not be met.
In its report, the Eastern Cape Department of Education admitted that it did not have a grasp on the extent of its infrastructure backlog.
There are 1 945 schools with pit latrines on the grounds in the Eastern Cape alone.
In August 2015, school caretaker Mtundini Saphepha sunk into a two-metre deep pit of mud and human waste at Kalalo Primary, outside Mthatha. He struggled to escape for half an hour. “I’m just glad it was me, and not one of the learners. I was old enough to survive, but if it were one of the children – they wouldn’t have made it,” he said afterwards.
When Equal Education visited Kalalo Primary in November 2016, that same pit latrine had not been filled, and was not entirely sealed off to learners.
There are 4 358 schools in South Africa where the pit latrine such as the one that Mr Saphepha sank into, is the only form of toilet.
The crisis conditions in schools disproportionately affects rural learners.
Motshekga said she anticipates it would take less than three months to complete the investigation. The audit and costed plan would look at what was still outstanding and could be fast-tracked, she added.