Prove we have a capable state – build safe toilets in schools

Many pupils are forced to use dilapidated toilets like this one. They are at risk of contracting diseases or falling into these pit latrines, which are about 10 metres away from their classrooms. Picture: Tiro Ramatlhatse/Sowetan/Gallo Images
Many pupils are forced to use dilapidated toilets like this one. They are at risk of contracting diseases or falling into these pit latrines, which are about 10 metres away from their classrooms. Picture: Tiro Ramatlhatse/Sowetan/Gallo Images

“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” Nelson Mandela, May 8 1995

Our government should be ashamed of itself.

It says it is not capable of building hygienic and safe toilets for the millions of children who attend our public schools.

It is however capable of hosting peace summits in Madiba’s name in New York, sending big delegations to China, building state-of-the-art football stadiums, organising summits and commissions, bailing out airlines and Eskom, and making sure its own ministers’ needs are catered for.

As a result of campaigns by Section27, President Cyril Ramaphosa and his cabinet know that children like Michael Komape and Lumka Mkethwa have drowned in toilets and that others have been horribly injured.

They know that every day tens of thousands of children must face flies and insects; must perch above stinking pits; must breathe in the foul smell; stare at the dirt and then brush the stink off their clothes as they go back to classrooms.

Yet all it can do is conjure up excuse after excuse as to why it cannot urgently resolve this most basic of problems.

The failure to build school toilets is but a symptom of a bigger problem; the loss of a moral compass, urgency and accountability.

This is state failure.

The reasons for this state failure are not particularly hard to uncover. A good place to start is by looking at the state’s imposed austerity measures.

This has prioritised public debt reduction over social spending, resulting in reduced government spending per person for three years in a row.

In fact, analysis by education researcher Nic Spaull shows that spending per learner on basic education has been failing for 10 years. This is resulting in cuts to school funding of up to 15% in poorer provinces like KwaZulu-Natal.

Meanwhile, funding for the education infrastructure grant has been reduced by R7.2 billion over three years.

This marks a significant reduction in the funds available to fix broken schools and provide decent sanitation and other facilities to learners.

It is well worth noting that rural provinces are completely reliant on this grant from treasury to pay for school infrastructure, not only for upgrades and additions but also maintenance.

This means that the reduction of funding for this crucial grant will in all likelihood make conditions worse at many schools.

All of this flies in the face of the president’s instruction in March this year that safe sanitation be made a priority and that dangerous pit toilets be eradicated. The basic education departments, national and provincial, have got much to answer for.

To government’s credit however the past two decades have witnessed a massive increase in funding for school infrastructure.

Despite this increase it would be remiss not to contextualise this against the inequality backdrop from which we were departing and the greater strides demanded in order to make meaningful spending improvements.

Despite the increase in spending however, money was not effectively spent.

An example of the ineffectual spending of money is the Accelerated Schools Infrastructure Development Initiative that returned billions of rands unspent year after year and provinces such as Limpopo are illustrative of this problem.

In the Michael Komape damages case the judge ordered that the Limpopo department of Education provide the court with an audit and a plan to make its school toilets safe and hygienic.

Its response however, in an affidavit filed on August 31 2018 was that it cannot begin to do that until 2026, citing that it does not have enough money.

Yet an analysis of Limpopo education department’s budgets by Section27 found the following:

• Poor planning caused it to miss out on R133 million of education infrastructure grant incentive funds from National Treasury;

• R192 million was wasted in the 2017/18 financial year;

• R950 million was spent irregularly during the 2017/18 financial year, indicating potential misuse of funds, corruption in tender processes and/or overspending on tenders;

• In its annual report for 2017/18, it recorded a net underspend of R91.5 million on its infrastructure development programme over the past two years.

To add insult to injury the Limpopo government did not even make reference to or mention the #SAFE initiative that had been announced by the president in the same month.

They inexplicably doubled the cost of toilets from R50 000 to R100 000 a seat, as if in anticipation of profits their business partners stood to make out of this crisis.

Surely this can only make you worry about the safety of funds announced by the president as part of the “stimulus package” announced last week to “ensure the completion of 1100 school sanitation projects in the current financial year”. At what cost we wonder?

President Ramaphosa and the good men and women in our government, have as much of a problem with corruption and self-interest by politicians and public servants in the education department as they do in SAA, Sars or Eskom.

Irregular and wasteful expenditure by provincial education departments amounts to billions of rands annually. It is therefore not a radical departure that there would also be widespread reports of corruption in the expenditure of funds intended for schools.

While we appreciate that our country faces serious fiscal constraints, the future consequences of prolonged corruption and mismanagement in our basic education sector will have far worse effects on our constitutional democracy.

One of the greatest and most lasting contributions of Madiba was the Constitution, which gave children a basket of immediately realisable rights, including to basic education, basic health care services and basic nutrition.

But in the year when we celebrate Madiba’s 100th birthday we deliberately overlook our failures towards that part of the population he felt most passionately about – our children.

Despite our many problems we believe South Africa is a capable and winning state. We challenge our politicians and the private sector to prove we are.

The implementation of a plan that restores dignity and hope to so many of our children, before Madiba’s 101st birthday, would be proof that we do not take his legacy for granted.

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