Melanie Verwoerd

Minister's head should roll over pit latrine deaths

2018-03-22 08:03
Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga (Jenni Evans, News24)

Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga (Jenni Evans, News24)

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As a child I spent many happy hours on my grandparents little farm in the North West. It was a careless existence for a small child, except for one thing… going to the toilet.

My grandparents never had running water until I was a university student. So, for years, I had to make anxious visits to the pit latrine in a little corrugated iron structure which felt like kilometres (it was only a few hundred meters) from the house.

As a child the place was filled with danger. I feared the big spiders that peeked at me and the possibility of snakes hiding somewhere under the pieces of newspaper that substituted for toilet paper. But most of all I feared the deep, dark hole.

My grandparents had a little handmade wooden bench seat on the top, but the hole was big and I knew it was dangerous. Every time any of us would walk down the little "loo path" my grandmother would shout: "Hold on tightly – don’t fall in. You will die!" The mere thought of such a death would give me nightmares at night.

I have often used pit latrines subsequently – especially during travels in rural Africa. I don’t mind the hygiene (smell) side of it, but I still have a sense of trepidation about the big, deep pit.

Last week 5-year-old Lumka Mketwa fell into one of those big holes and drowned. Can you imagine a death worse than that? I can’t. She was, of course, not the first. Four years ago, another 5-year-old, Michael Komape, died a similar horrific death in Limpopo. I have a nephew that is 5 years old and thinking about how tiny and innocent he is just intensifies the horror that I feel.

Horror, but also fury.

Four years ago, the Department of Basic Education promised that not another child would die in this manner. At the time Minister Angie Motshekga said that one in four schools still used pit latrines and 196 of the 24 793 public schools countrywide had no adequate sanitation, not even pit toilets.

She also promised that by 2016 all schools would have basic services as set out in the minimum uniform norms and standards regulations. Ominously, she warned that while schools without any sanitation would be prioritised, those using pit latrines may not be upgraded to flush toilets.

"It is not a foregone conclusion that all schools should be provided with flush toilets... some areas to do not have access to reliable water supply to support the provision of flush toilets," she said.

Ja, Minister, we all know that, but there are many other alternatives that could in the interim make it safer for the children. You could have avoided these deaths by, for example, installing a proper toilet on top of the pit and putting safety covers on top of the seat (such as those used to toilet train children) or by putting designated smaller toilets for the little ones.

There are also other options. India, for example, has similar problems with a lack of water borne sewage to many schools in the rural areas. They have designed pit latrines that are shallow and safe. It does mean that the toilets have to be maintained and also moved every few years – but surely if India can do it, so can we.

There is also the option of composting toilets. The list goes on and on.

The shocking thing is that in the 2015/2016 financial year a total accumulated amount of R2,41 billion was misappropriated within the Department of Basic Education. If only a fraction of that was spent on finding a solution to this terrible problem the lives of two little innocent 5-years-olds could have been saved.

The truth is that the will was never there. That is the shocking reality. We actually live in a country where little children drown in faeces and urine at school and the minister remains in her position with yet more empty promises.

Earlier this week retired deputy chief justice Dikgang Moseneke in his Life Esidimeni judgment said the following of the MEC under whose watch the tragedy unfolded:

"On all accounts she was at the helm of the marathon project. She was the ultimate leader and commander. She was aware of the risks, brushed aside warnings that death might and did ensue."

It is difficult to see how the exact same thing cannot be said of Minister Motshekga in relation to Lumka's death.

I hope the president intervenes in this matter. Firstly, by ensuring that all pit latrines are made safe immediately, and secondly, by prioritising their replacement. And while he is at it, it is surely time to also replace the Minister for Basic Education – if not for the failures in our education system – then for the death of two children in toilets at their school under her watch.

- Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African Ambassador to Ireland. 

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

Read more on:    department of basic education  |  angie motshekga  |  limpopo  |  toilets
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