November 2016 was the deadline for all schools in the country to build according to the standards and norms the basic education department adopted three years earlier. These are intended to ensure that dilapidated and mud schools are replaced by brick and mortar structures, which will ensure our children have safe ablution systems too.
A year after government adopted these standards, five-year-old Michael Komape fell into a pit latrine at his school in Limpopo. He died. His death could have served as a reminder to the department and government to hurry up and replace old infrastructure. The 2016 deadline has been missed and hundreds of schools in many rural areas are in such bad condition that learning and teaching takes place under trees, while rain and cold weather interrupts classes.
This week, Viwe Jali fell into a pit latrine toilet at Luna Primary School in Bizana, Eastern Cape. She was the same age as Michael.
Ironically, in 2016, the provincial education department returned R530m to Treasury because it could not spend the money for infrastructure projects and it was used for other projects.
The nation will seek justice for Viwe and officials should account for what happened, for why a child was allowed to go to the toilet without supervision. Seeking answers from the school will be easy, but the problem goes beyond those answers.
Since the department failed to spend its infrastructure budget in 2016, what happened to the MEC and senior officials who failed to deliver? The money returned to Treasury could well have benefited Viwe’s school and probably saved her life.
Twenty-four years into democracy, those elected to lead government must ask themselves whether they would allow their children or relatives to use the services they offer. Many of the officials tasked with ensuring infrastructure is built do not have to worry about these projects since their own children go to better schools – leaving the question of whether they have a duty to be occupying those public offices. While government seeks to deal with Viwe’s death and find solutions, let us hope they do not resort to short cuts and stopgap measures.
We failed Michael and Viwe. Let us never again have to cry for a child who dies in such a cruel and chilling way.