subscribe Support our award-winning journalism. The Premium package (digital only) is R30 for the first month and thereafter you pay R129 p/m now ad-free for all subscribers.
Subscribe now

Advocacy group Equal Education has sounded the alarm about thousands of schools in Limpopo that still lack safe toilets after the provincial education department failed to meet its latest deadline for upgrading sanitation facilities.

The Limpopo education department was instructed by the high court to devise a plan for eradicating pit latrines and providing schools with safe toilets after public interest group Section 27 took legal action against it in the wake of Michael Komape’s death in 2014. The five-year-old drowned after falling into a dilapidated pit toilet at his school.

The court-ordered plan, released in June 2022, included measures to replace all “plain pit” toilets, which are little more than a hole in the ground, with no ventilation or modifications to make them safer. The department set itself the target of eradicating all plain pit toilets in 566 “priority 1” schools by April 2023, and then extended the deadline to April 1 this year.

But as of December 2023, 80 of these schools still lacked safe toilets, said Equal Education, citing a report by the Limpopo education department. Priority 1 schools were the first group of schools that were to have their toilets fixed.

Equal Education said recent site visits to two priority 1 schools revealed little progress had been made. Learners at Mashashane Primary school were still using dangerous pit toilets while those at Tutwana Primary School relied on four temporary toilets. “The experiences of learners in Tutwana and Mashashane are just two examples of a much bigger sanitation crisis in Limpopo: about 1,900 schools in the province still have dangerous plain pit toilets and over 2,000 Limpopo schools need sanitation upgrades,” it said.

Limpopo education department spokesperson Mosebjane Kgaffe said a R182m cut from the infrastructure grant in 2023 had forced all projects to come to a standstill in 2023/2024, including those that were “halfway to completion”.

“In 2024/25 financial year the department will continue with the construction of ablution facilities to address the inappropriate, inadequate and demolition of pit latrines. 69 schools are still outstanding,” she said. This year’s school sanitation budget stood at R1.53bn, slightly up on the R1.37bn set aside in 2023/2024.

Most schools had experienced an increase in learner enrolment in 2024 affecting their ability to provide adequate ablution facilities, she said. Schools are required to provide one toilet for every 22 learners, according to the infrastructure norms and standards for schools, she said.

Equal Education’s national head of organising Zanele Modise said the Limpopo education department did not have accurate data on school sanitation facilities and was thus unable to devise effective plans for eradicating unsafe toilets. “We are seeing some changes, but the pace is too slow. We are not seeing any urgency or the political will to take action,” she said.

“They continue to cite budget constraints, but every year they send money back to Treasury,” she said. Funding for school infrastructure is provided to provinces via ring-fenced conditional grants: at the end of the financial year unspent funds are usually returned to the Treasury.

Kgaffe disputed Modise’s claim that infrastructure grants were not fully spent. “From the infrastructure budget and grant no cent was returned,” she said.

Breadline Africa, a nonprofit organisation that provides infrastructure to SA schools, said Limpopo’s sanitation challenges were mirrored in many other provinces.

“Conditions are incredibly unsafe in many SA schools,” said Breadline Africa director Marion Wagner. Not only were children using suboptimal toilets, but many schools still housed dangerously dilapidated facilities that were no longer in use, but posed a risk to unattended children.

“There are frequent accidents in old pit latrines (that should have been sealed up),” she said.

Breadline Africa is now working with provincial education departments in the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga, and has raised funds from the private sector to upgrade sanitation facilities in 20 schools.

subscribe Support our award-winning journalism. The Premium package (digital only) is R30 for the first month and thereafter you pay R129 p/m now ad-free for all subscribers.
Subscribe now

Would you like to comment on this article?
Sign up (it's quick and free) or sign in now.

Speech Bubbles

Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.