Rotshidzwa Maluga attended Mabila Primary School deep in rural Vhembe in Limpopo over twenty years ago. He clearly remembers using the pit toilets at the school. Unbelievably, it’s the same toilets, only now more dilapidated, his five-year-old daughter is using as a Grade R pupil at the school.
“Every day I see her coming from the school, I celebrate knowing that she has survived for that day. But the stress I get for the few hours when my girl is at school is too much, as I worry about her safety,” the unemployed father of one tells Health-e News.
He says he worries daily that she will fall into one of the toilets.” These pit toilets at school are a ticking time bomb. Children are children. You cannot tell them only to use the bathroom when they get home. They will use the school toilets,” says Maluga.
Situated in Mabila village, Mabila Primary is the only school in the area. It has four dilapidated pit toilets that pupils share with teachers. Two for girls and two for boys. Over 200 children are enrolled at the school, which caters for Grade R to Grade 7.
“Though most of us still use pit toilets within our homes, they are properly constructed and safe to use, unlike those constructed years ago during the apartheid era. It’s about time the government does something as the safety of our children matters,” says Maluga.
The wait for new toilets continues
Almost five years ago, piles of bricks were delivered to the school to build proper toilet facilities. Not a single brick was laid, and nobody knows why.
In 2020, the Limpopo education department told Health-e News the plans for a new sanitation block were abandoned due to a proposal to merge Mabila Primary school with another school in a nearby village. The merger never happened.
School Governing Body (SGB) chairperson, Eric Negondeni, says the department hasn’t updated them.
That is not the school’s only challenge. It also faces critical water shortages like the rest of the area. The community buys water from those who have boreholes.
According to the latest national statistics from the 2021 National Education Infrastructure Monitoring System (NEIMS) report, 2130 schools in South Africa have pit toilets as the only form of sanitation. The NEIMS also states that 90 schools have no access to electricity, while 5 836 schools have access to unreliable water.
‘Serious implications for female learners’
Equal Education researcher Jane Borman says poor infrastructure and sanitation deeply impact the day-to-day running of schools, including teaching. Female pupils’ education is particularly affected, as girls are likely to skip school when they menstruate.
“Stress is placed on educators who must compensate for the school’s lack of resources to try and deliver quality teaching for their learners. Therefore, dignified, safe and adequate school infrastructure is indispensable to teaching and learning and learners’ full enjoyment of quality schooling,” explains Borman.
In October 2022, the Department of Basic Education (DBE) reported to Equal Education that 225 schools are still made of entirely inappropriate materials, while 3 677 schools are made partially with inappropriate materials.
Global Coordinator at End Water Poverty, Dr Alana Potter, believes that the deaths of at least three children in pit latrines in South African public schools should have been a catalyst to solving the problem urgently.
In 2014, five-year-old Michael Komape fell and drowned in a pit toilet at Mahlodumela Primary School in Limpopo. In 2017, Siyamthanda Mtunu died after the walls of a pit toilet collapsed on him at Dalasile Primary School in the Eastern Cape. And in 2018, five-year-old Lumka Mketwa fell into a pit toilet and drowned at Luna Primary School in the Eastern Cape.
Poor sanitation is responsible for poor health outcomes in kids
According to Potter, the hygienic use of improved water and sanitation is needed to achieve the intended health benefits. “Water and a good toilet are necessary but insufficient. If you do not wash your hands, you will still get ill,” says Potter.
Borman says information on school infrastructure is either unavailable or outdated. When data is available, it is usually unreliable.
“This is because the information provided by the DBE often contradicts that provided by provincial education departments or the reality on the ground. For instance, we know of many schools that do not have access to water at all, but the national data shows that all schools have access to some source of water supply,” says Borman.
Borman says the bulk of the infrastructure backlogs is in rural provinces, namely Eastern Cape, Limpopo, and KwaZulu-Natal.
“Although these provinces inherited a deeply unequal and structurally inadequate basic education system in 1994, nearly 30 years later, we have seen mismanagement, apathy, and corruption hinder progress in service delivery to schools, compromising learners’ well-being, schooling, and futures.”
Lack of political will
Borman adds poor spending and planning in the sector illustrate the lack of political will to address school infrastructure challenges. Even with a law in place and court orders against them, education departments are slow to act.
“For instance, since its launch in 2011, the Accelerated Schools Infrastructure Delivery Initiative (ASIDI) has only managed to replace 266 schools made of inappropriate materials, improve the sanitation at 886 schools, and provide 372 schools with electricity,” said Borman.
Meanwhile, pupils, parents and teachers continue to hope that government will eventually address the issues Mabila Primary School faces.
Attempts to get comments from the provincial and national Department of Basic Education failed. –Health-e News.
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