It was seen as the worst form of abuse of power. Community members called it an infringement of a child's right to dignity and children's rights advocates called for the harshest possible punishment.
Now the man responsible has been dealt his first blow by losing his job. He still faces other charges.
When the principal of the Luthuthu Junior Secondary School in Ugie, Eastern Cape, Lubeko Mgandela, forced a pupil to climb into a pit toilet to search for his phone, it shocked the whole community.
Now Lubeko (49) has been dismissed from his job.
He promised an 11-year-old boy R200 if he found his cellphone, which he dropped in a pit toilet at the school.
The child, who lives with his grandmother, didn't find the phone and went home.
Once the community found out about what happened, Lubeko visited the boy’s home and apologised to his grandmother and gave the boy R50. She accepted the apology but community members were not convinced.
Vuyiseka Mboxeka, media liaison officer for Eastern Cape education MEC, says Lubeko was dismissed after pleading guilty in a disciplinary hearing.
The hearing, Vuyiseka says, was held in two sessions and he pleaded guilty in the first one.
“On the second session, he was dismissed after his guilty plea was accepted. Then the appeal period lapsed before he lodged an appeal [against his dismissal] in the office of the MEC. The MEC accepts the outcome and the findings of the disciplinary hearings. That school now has an acting principal,” she says.
Vuyiseka says the MEC, Fundile Gada, was a teacher for 16 years and, knowing what is expected of them, he was saddened by this principal's behaviour.
“The MEC is of the view that when parents send children to school, they do so with the expectation they will be protected and taken care of. What has happened in this case was a serious human rights violation,” she says.
“He had to be taken out of the system because he has proven he cannot be trusted with the responsibility of shaping the futures of young Eastern Cape children.”
Community member Sithembiso Gwampa says they are pleased that Lubeko has been dismissed.
“What he did to that child is very unfortunate. We hope this will be a lesson to other teachers as well that they do right by the children because if they do not, they will be dismissed. That child is an orphan and we cannot have orphans so terribly treated because they have no one to defend them.
"Some of these teachers just do not care because they come to our village to teach. They are not from here, so they are not invested because their children go to other schools,” he says.
Lubeko was initially charged with attempted murder but the charge was later changed to child abuse. His trial started today at the Tsolo Magistrate’s Court.
To get the phone from the toilet, the child was lowered by a rope and held up by other kids. While knee deep in faeces, he had to stir around looking for the phone.
On 1 March, the boy came home from school with his cousin and his grandmother immediately picked up a terrible odour coming from him.
“I cannot describe it. He smelled like something rotten.
“There wasn’t even time for him to tell me the story. I asked why he smelt like that and before he could answer, his cousin told me he had to go into the toilet at school because the principal accidently dropped his phone into the toilet. Because he is slender, I was told the principal said he would be able to fit into the toilet to look for the phone. He said the principal promised him R200 if he found the phone, but he didn’t find it.
“A few days later, I think on the Friday, the principal gave him R50. On the 8 March, the principal came here to the house with another teacher from school and members of the school governing body. He came to apologise and I accepted his apology,” she told Drum at the time.