OPINION: Safe sanitation in rural schools – a dream deferred?

Pit latrines at a school in the Eastern Cape. (Supplied, file)
Pit latrines at a school in the Eastern Cape. (Supplied, file)

Their rights to safety and human dignity are violated. Schools, which are meant to nurture and secure the future of communities, become a threat to the lives of the most vulnerable members of society, writes Thembela Ntlemeza


"What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore - and then run? Does it stink like rotten meat? Or crust and sugar over - like a syrupy sweet?

"Maybe it just sags like a heavy load. Or does it explode?"

Langston Hughes writes this poem in 1951 in protest against racial segregation in the US.

He uses figurative language to interrogate possible consequences that may arise when the aspirations of a people are not met. He then argues that several outcomes may result from this delay in the hopes of a people, including what he terms an "explosion".

Recently, on World Toilet Day, as I reflected on the state and consequences of inadequate sanitation in South African rural schools, Langston's writing resonated, and beckoned the question: what happens when safe sanitation is denied a child? We of course know the answer to this; the lives of young girls and boys are devastatingly cut short.

Their rights to safety and human dignity are violated. Schools, which are meant to nurture and secure the future of communities, become a threat to the lives of the most vulnerable members of society. 

About 3 800 schools still depend on unsafe pit latrines for sanitation facilities.

While this is an improvement from the reported 11 000 schools reliant on pit latrines in 2011 (National Education Infrastructure Management System), it is still behind target according to the Norms and Standards on School Infrastructure adopted by the Department of Basic Education in 2013, the regulations of which set out to prioritise the implementation of infrastructure upgrades in schools without adequate sanitation supply by 2016.

Over three years later and the problem still lingers. 

One life lost to poor sanitation was already too many. We have to take measures to ensure that not one more child is subjected to life threatening conditions in their place of learning.

The Presidency has responded to this urgent call by launching the Sanitation Appropriate for Education (SAFE) initiative, a partnership between government, the United Nations Children's Fund, the Nelson Mandela Foundation, the National Education Collaboration Trust, and the private sector.

The initiative is a response to findings from an audit on all toilet facilities in schools and aims to drive the provision of safe and adequate sanitation to all South African learners and, by extension, restore their dignity.

The Minister of Finance echoed matching sentiments in the 2019 national budget speech when he stated that the eradication of unsafe sanitation in schools had been allocated for in the national expenditure framework. 

With all these initiatives having responded in support of changing the status quo, the time for practical interventions is now.

This being so, it is important to consider the intersectional role of other components such as water and energy in the design and implementation of solutions.

Our severely constrained water and energy supply, demand that we re-think traditional sanitation as we know it.

As stated recently by Water Research Commission CEO, Mr Dhesigen Naidoo, "the way we're going to solve the sanitation problems of today is by using the technology of tomorrow".

He said this while addressing attendees of the Africa Sanitation Revolution Investment Roundtable hosted in Sandton by the Water Research Commission and partners on November 14 and 15.

The aim of the event, which saw the participation of various organs of state, technology developers, commercial entities, the Minister of Human Settlements, Water & Sanitation, and others, was to "bring the wide water and sanitation sector and industry together to share and shift gear in efforts towards the development of an innovative sanitation technology platform in South Africa".

Among the main points of discussion was the need for innovative sanitation for (rural) schools wherein speakers highlighted the SAFE initiative as a vehicle through which dry and low-water, low-energy sanitation technologies can be developed, tested and implemented in schools. 

The event was facilitated by the South African Sanitation Technology Evaluation Programme (SASTEP), which was initiated by the Water Research Commission in conjunction with the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF).

This programme aims to drive a local sanitation industry that would expand adequate sanitation access to unserved communities, reduce carbon and water footprints and contribute to economic growth through creating jobs and competitive entrepreneurial opportunities.

This is envisioned to be accomplished through development of a platform to promote and foster the commercialisation and diffusion of "next generation sanitation products and technologies" in South Africa.

In due manner, rural schools are among the intended beneficiaries of the SASTEP initiative.

Seemingly, the dream for adequate sanitation in rural schools may be deferred, but it is certainly not denied. 

- Thembela Ntlemeza is a Technology Transfer Officer at the Water Research Commission and writes in her personal capacity.

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