Girl’s pit toilet death reveals sad state of school sanitation - NGOs

Cape Town – The drowning of five-year-old Lumka Mketwa in a school pit toilet this week has shocked organisations fighting for proper school infrastructure, which agree that government should be doing more to eradicate shoddy sanitation altogether.

The little girl drowned on Monday. Her body lay in the toilet overnight at Luna Primary School in Bizana as loved ones and school staff looked for her.

She was found on Tuesday, according to Eastern Cape police.

The incident was similar to one at a school outside Polokwane in 2014, where five-year-old Michael Komape drowned in a pit toilet.

Komape’s family, represented by advocacy group Section 27, went to court to claim damages and compel the government to provide decent sanitation. 

Judgment was reserved in February.

Describing Mketwa’s death as horrific, Section 27 spokesperson Ntsiki Mpulo said on Friday that they were still trying to get hold of her family to express their condolences and find out more details.

Asked if they would consider representing her family, she said: "We are talking with our lawyers to get more information before we make a decision to institute a case."

She said the outcome of the Komape case should make it easier for others in similar situations to access justice.

Bucket, pit latrines not allowed

In terms of the basic education department's minimum uniform norms and standards that Minister Angie Motshekga passed in November 2013, a certain type of pit latrine was deemed acceptable sanitation for schools.

Abbreviated to VIP toilets, Ventilated Improved Pit latrines were an option listed in the norms and standards.

They differed from plain pit toilets, in that they had a ventilation pipe and a screen fitted to the top outlet of the pipe. The toilet normally also had brick walls.

A single pre-cast VIP latrine for a household cost in the region of R9 000, excluding VAT, for a contractor to dig a hole, line it with blocks and construct a top structure, said Conloo general manager Robbie Prior.

The company assists mostly municipalities with rural sanitation in KwaZulu-Natal and Eastern Cape. 

Prior said a pit toilet like this would last a household of six people for up to 10 years.

Schools would need a bigger pit volume and may require toilets in a block row, instead of singular structures, he added.

Prior said their offer to assist the education department with school sanitation remained on the table.

"Plain pit and bucket latrines" were not allowed at schools, in terms of the norms and standards document.

However, as of January, there were still 4 358 schools across the country that only had plain pit latrines as toilets, according to a national education infrastructure management system report provided by Equal Education (EE).

A total of 37 schools in the Eastern Cape had no ablution facilities whatsoever. 

The report noted that projects were at different stages of implementation for these schools.

Blame placed on Motshekga

Motshekga was quick to express her shock in a statement, but incorrectly referred to the girl as Viwe Jali.

"Words cannot express the pain I personally feel at the loss of a young life in this horrific way. To know that as a sector we have not been able to address these infrastructure issues fast enough, for a number of reasons, breaks my heart," said Motshekga.

Her spokesperson Troy Martins explained on Friday morning that they had been given the girl’s clan name which was used at school, while Lumka Mketwa was her name on official records. 

EE felt Motshekga’s sympathy was "hollow, disrespectful and insensitive" and placed the blame on her, along with national and Eastern Cape department officials.

"No parent, no matter how poor, should have to bury a five-year-old - a child that lay in faeces," it said in a statement.

Earlier this week, the Bhisho High Court heard a case brought by EE to fix "unconstitutional loops and gaps" in the school infrastructure law.

One of its arguments was that there was an escape clause which rendered important deadlines as loose targets.

"The first was on 29 November 2016, by which date there should have been no more schools without water, sanitation, electricity, or that are built from inappropriate structures," it said in a statement.

Judgment was reserved and is expected to be delivered at the end of May at the latest, according to a GroundUp report.

Budget cuts

The Department of Basic Education said on Thursday that it was doing "everything in its capacity" to address backlogs timeously.

It said it had made significant strides in this regard, together with provincial education departments, but that budget cuts posed a threat to the provision of much needed infrastructure.

More than R3.5bn would be cut from the accelerated school infrastructure delivery initiatives budget in the next three years.

The SA Human Rights Commission on Friday said it had immediately initiated a province-wide investigation into Mketwa’s death, as well as the "appalling state" of many schools in the Eastern Cape.

Commission spokesperson Gail Smith said they had also requested an urgent meeting with Motshekga to discuss the state of school infrastructure.

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