Editorial | Pit latrines: How urgent is ‘urgent’?

A collapsed pit toilet. Picture: Mbulelo Sisulu
A collapsed pit toilet. Picture: Mbulelo Sisulu


The eradication of pit latrines in South Africa is “an urgent human need” that needs action, not empty promises and rhetoric.

The deaths of Lumka Mkethwa and Michael Komape in pit latrine toilets at their schools in the Eastern Cape and Limpopo, respectively, shocked the country.

Their tragic deaths were a devastating reminder of the reality of inadequate infrastructure in schools in poor communities. They should continue to haunt our collective conscience.

Spare generations of young South Africans the indignity, discomfort and danger of using pit latrines and other unsafe facilities in our schools.
President Cyril Ramaphosa

Many public schools – mostly in the rural provinces of Limpopo, KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape – still use dirty, dangerous and inhumane pit latrines.

The story of school principal Lubeko Mgandela (49), of Luthuthu Junior Secondary School in the Eastern Cape, who coerced an 11-year-old pupil to retrieve his phone that had fallen into a pit latrine in exchange for R200 again reminds us of government’s unfulfilled promise to eradicate pit latrines.

The disgusting incident would never have occurred had this scourge been addressed.

Read | Eastern Cape pit latrine scandal: School principal out on bail

In response to the death of Lumka in 2018, President Cyril Ramaphosa launched the Sanitation Appropriate for Education initiative, a public-private partnership meant to provide innovative, safe ablution facilities at nearly 4 000 rural and township schools around the country.

Calling the requirement for safe sanitation an urgent human need, Ramaphosa said the initiative would save lives and restore the dignity of tens of thousands of our nation’s children “as our Constitution demands”, and that it would “spare generations of young South Africans the indignity, discomfort and danger of using pit latrines and other unsafe facilities in our schools”.

On this Human Rights Day, we ask: What does urgent actually mean?


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