Principal suspended for forcing pupil into pit toilet to search for missing cell phone

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  • The principal of the Luthuthu Junior Secondary school is in hot water after he allegedly used a rope to lower an 11-year-old pupil into a pit latrine to search for his cellphone, after the principal accidentally dropped it into the pit latrine.
  • The faeces-covered child, has become a laughing stock at the school, and is too ashamed to attend classes.
  • There are 1 598 schools still using pit latrines in the Eastern Cape with the Basic Education Department having only managed to build adequate toilets for 24 schools of its 242 target in 2020. 

An Eastern Cape school principal has been suspended after he allegedly used a rope to lower an 11-year-old pupil down a pit toilet to search for his missing cellphone after it accidentally fell into the pit latrine.

The principal, Lubeko Mgandela, is now in hot water over the incident that happened at the Elundini Municipality based, Luthuthu Junior Secondary School in Joe Gqabi district, two weeks ago.

Asked for comment, the principal declined to respond to questions, referring News24 to the Eastern Cape Department of Education.

The incident was seemingly kept under wraps until it reached the ears of the children’s advocacy group, Khula Community Development Project, which blew the whistle this week.

The faeces-covered 11-year-old was apparently seen by dozens of learners and is now being too ashamed to attend classes.

The one-hour cellphone search operation involved dozens of other school children who were allegedly ordered by the principal to use buckets to remove as much faeces as possible before the boy was lowered down, said Khula director Petros Majola.

Majola said the boy stood knee-deep in human waste, using his hands to search for the cellphone, to no avail.

READ | Safe sanitation in rural schools – a dream deferred?

He said the principal had promised the pupil R200 for the job but when the leaner returned without the cellphone, the disappointed principal only paid him R50.

The advocacy group, Khula, is now calling for the principal to be sacked.

On Monday, Eastern Cape education department announced that it has launched an investigation into the incident while MEC Fundile Gade has ordered that the principal be placed on precautionary suspension.

“The MEC has instructed the acting Head of department Dr Naledi Mbude to serve the principal with the precautionary suspension letter as the matter is being investigated. Our Labor Relations Unit is there with a psycho-social support team led by the [local] district director. The department of Social Development is also in close contact with the matter,” said Gade’s spokesperson Vuyiseka Mboxela.

The child’s 75-year old grandmother, who cannot be named to protect his identity, said the boy was too ashamed to go back to school because other children made fun of him.

The boy's biological mother died three years ago.

His granny said:

He is a brave boy, showing lot of character. He continued to attended classes after I encouraged him to be strong. This incident did a lot of damage to him emotionally, but we are praying for him to get better.

She added that she has four grandchildren attending the same school where the incident occurred.

"It was his eldest sister, 13-years-old, who reported the incident to me. The boy was too ashamed to talk about it. I was so disturbed about this incident. A teacher from the school came to apologise the next morning."

The grandmother added that she did not take any further steps about the incident, but angry community members went to the school to complain, however they were apparently threatened and chased away by teaching staff.

That was before the incident reached Majola's ears.

There are currently 1 598 schools still using pit toilets in the Eastern Cape, according to education portfolio committee member and DA deputy provincial chairperson Yusuf Cassim.  

READ MORE | Almost 4000 pit latrines in SA's schools, zero target set 'within the next 3 years'

"[The] Department of Basic Education launched a safe programme, which was meant to build toilets at schools, but year after year, the programme completely failed in terms of its set targets. In the previous financial year, it aimed to build toilets for 242 schools, and yet only built toilets at about 24 schools."

The Eastern Cape social development department MEC Siphokazi Mani-Lusithi said she was totally appalled by the 'barbaric incident', calling on school authorities to deal decisively with the alleged perpetrator.

Mani-Lusithi said she has already dispatched senior officials from her department to make available experts to offer psycho-social support to both the child and family.

"The family is receiving counselling and we will work with them to get through this horrible experience," said Mani-Lusithi.

Majola said: "We believe that this 11-year-old-boy was introduced to the worst form of abuse and his human dignity as enshrined in the Constitution of the RSA Act 108 of 1996 amended was infringed. The Principal failed to display ethical standards as a professional and we call upon the South African Council for Educators to remove him from the register, which means his certificate should be revoked and the ECDOE must have him deregister from the roll of employees of the department with immediate effect."

Majola added while they understand that everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty by a court of law, they demand that the Department of Education put the child's best interest first and take action.

"Here we have a duty of restoring self-esteem and confidence in this boy so that he is able to cope. Currently he is laughed at by his peers. There is no way that we would ever think of removing the child from Luthuthu Junior SS as that could amount to secondary victimisation because he is already a victim of the situation."

Basic Education Department spokesperson Elijah Mhlanga said the director-general of Basic Education was in the Eastern Cape where he is currently monitoring the SAFE projects.

 "A lot of work is being done to address the issues of pit toilets. The target referred could not be realised due to the restrictions put in place due to [the] Covid-19 pandemic. The DG, Mathanzima Mweli, has visited more than 100 projects in different provinces where the SAFE initiative is being implemented, that means the replacement of pit toilets with properly build structures," he added.

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