The campaign follows a series of tragedies at schools with unsafe sanitation. Picture: THE TIMES
The campaign follows a series of tragedies at schools with unsafe sanitation. Picture: THE TIMES
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President Cyril Ramaphosa launched a campaign to eliminate dangerous school toilets on Tuesday, calling on the private sector to help ensure pit latrines become a relic of the past.

The campaign follows a series of tragedies at schools with unsafe sanitation, the most recent of which was the death of five-year-old Lumka Mkhethwa, who drowned in a pit toilet at her school in Mbizana in the Eastern Cape in March.

“This is an initiative that will save lives and restore the dignity of tens of thousands of our nation’s children, as our constitution demands. (It) will spare generations of young South Africans the indignity, discomfort and danger of using pit latrines and other unsafe facilities in our schools,” he said at the launch.

The Sanitation Appropriate for Education (SAFE) initiative aims to eliminate pit latrines in schools by 2030, and is a partnership between government, the UN Children’s Fund, the Nelson Mandela Foundation and the National Education Collaboration Trust. Ramaphosa said almost 4,000 schools had toilets that needed to be replaced.

SAFE has already received funding pledges of more than R45m, along with pro bono provision of professional and technical services, according to the presidency.

The private sector commitments are needed to help the department of basic education overcome cuts to school infrastructure grants, which are a direct result of the government’s revenue shortfall and the need to find funds for free higher education.

The education infrastructure grant and the accelerated schools infrastructure delivery initiative (also known as the schools infrastructure backlog grant) both experienced a reduction. The former grant fell 1.3% from R10.046bn in 2017-2018 to R9.918bn in 2018-2019, while the latter dropped 9% from R1.452bn to R1.321bn over the same period.

Lobby group Equal Education said it was ironic that the president had launched the campaign while basic education minister Angie Motshekga continued to resist fixing flaws in the rules governing school infrastructure.

Despite initial assurances from the basic education department’s spokesman Elijah Mhlanga. that the minister would abide by a high court ruling in Bisho last month that set deadlines for fixing school infrastructure, her legal team is now seeking leave to appeal. It has petitioned the Constitutional Court to hear the matter directly, failing which it is seeking leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of Appeal.

“In light of this political movement (SAFE), why fight a decision that says you have to fix schools? We are very disappointed” said Equal Education Law Centre deputy director Daniel Linde.

The judgment handed down by the Bisho High Court on July 18 was the culmination of a long-running campaign by Equal Education to improve school infrastructure. In November 2013 the minister reached a court-sanctioned settlement with Equal Education and published legally binding norms and standards for school infrastructure.

SAFE has already received funding pledges of more than R45m, along with pro bono provision of professional and technical services. 

These rules gave the government three years to replace unsafe structures and to ensure schools had appropriate sanitation, water and electricity. But, according to Equal Education, flaws in the Minimum Norms and Standards for School Infrastructure allowed the state to indefinitely delay fixing problems in some schools. The high court upheld Equal Education’s argument, and declared these aspects of the rules unconstitutional and invalid, in effect compelling the government to meet the deadlines set out in the law.

The appeal suspends the high court ruling.

Linde said it was difficult to reconcile the President’s initiative with the state’s reluctance to release its plans for fixing school infrastructure, which should have been published by November 2017. Equal Education had used the Promotion of Access to Information Act to obtain the plans, but still lacked the one for the Eastern Cape — the province with the worst backlog, he said.

The DA’s shadow deputy minister of basic education, Nomsa Marchesi, questioned the government’s commitment to eliminating school pit latrines, saying a child who started Grade 1 this year could go their entire school career without having access to a safe toilet at school.