At Bolotswi Secondary school the learners have cut a hole in the school’s fence. It’s not an act of teenage vandalism, it creates a short cut to the bushes where they go to the toilet. “Our school pit toilets are full and filthy. We cannot use them anymore for our own health and hygiene. Some are completely inaccessible. We are therefore forced to use bushes when we want to relieve ourselves,” says Thabiso Selowa, a grade 10 learner at the school.
“We walk up to half an hour to get to the bush. The journey would actually be longer had we not cut open the school fence to create a shortcut for ourselves,” Selowa explains.
For many South African schoolchildren going to the toilet is dangerous. Since 2007, at least four young children have died while using unsafe toilets at their schools.
One of them, five-year-old Michael Komape, drowned in a dilapidated pit latrine at his school in Limpopo in January 2014, just two months after the government passed legislation stating that pit toilets were not allowed in South Africa’s schools. Progress in removing them has been painfully slow.
In April 2018, four years after Michael’s death, a judge ruled in a case brought against the Minister of Basic Education by the Komape family, that the Limpopo Department of Education (LDE) had to give the court “a list containing names and locations of all the schools in rural areas [of Limpopo province] with pit toilets for use by the learners”. The department handed that list to the court on August 31.
Section27 collected data from 86 schools in Limpopo between May and July 2018 to assess their sanitation facilities. This is what they found.
Schools that are not on the list compiled by the Limpopo Department of Education for the High Court are unlikely to be on the list given to President Cyril Ramaphosa for his SAFE Initiative – an emergency response announced with much fanfare in August to fix unsafe school sanitation after a five-year-old girl, Lumka Mketwa, died in a pit toilet at her school in the Eastern Cape.
One such school is Allegraine Primary School in the village of Ofcolaco in a fruit-growing area about 40km southeast of Tzaneen. Its 170 learners, are supposed to share four pit toilets but the pits are full and the toilets are unusable, so the girls share the teachers’ toilets, and the boys relieve themselves in the bush.
Dithamaga Primary School, in Ngwaabe village near the small mining town of Steelpoort, isn’t on the official list either. It has eight pit toilets that are shared by 115 learners. They were built in 2003 and even though they are still in good condition, the fact of the matter is that pit toilets are unlawful in terms of the norms and standards regulations and they should be replaced.
Loboli Secondary School built its own pit toilets for its 340 learners in 2017. Even though they are relatively new and in good condition, the toilets do not comply with regulations.
At Utjane Primary School there are eight pit toilets for around 300 learners. The toilets have no doors, so there is no privacy and a portion of the roof is leaking.
There are no doors on the toilets at Lamdzandvo Secondary School either. And the pit toilets are filthy and almost full. Yet, because these schools are not on the official Limpopo education department list, they will not be budgeted for, so it’s unlikely that their plain pit toilets will be upgraded any time soon.
But even schools that are on the list will have to wait for years for the department to improve their toilets. For some, the wait could be as long as 12 years, until 2031.
For example, at Vhulaudzi Secondary School, where 600 learners use pit toilets that are described as “filthy” and in “bad condition”, new toilets won’t be ready for use for another three years. March 2022 is the expected project completion date, according to the Limpopo education department's list.
Sinago Mataga, a grade 12 learner at the school, is afraid to use the toilets: "[F]irstly in our toilets there are no windows and inside it is very dark. It is scary. And the doors are not strong. When you enter, some are falling and others have already fallen. They no longer open properly."
“And you can’t, when you ask to go to the toilet if it is an emergency in class, come alone because as you can see it is very bushy such that you can find someone waiting for you or there is a snake and you get bitten by things. So we don’t feel safe when we come to the toilet alone. I will not come to the toilet alone, they are very scary.”
At Matsuokwana Secondary School, 224 high school learners share four pit toilets with cracked walls and no roof – the department expects the upgraded toilets to be finished only in March 2021.
Bolotswi Secondary School, where male learners are relieving themselves in the bushes because the school’s pit toilets are full, can expect new toilets only in five years’ time – by March 2024 – according to the department’s estimates.
Below are pictures taken of the actual toilets at some of the 86 schools Section 27 collected data on. Click on an image for more information.
Unlawful pit toilets are not the only problems Section27 found with the sanitation facilities at the schools.
The schools were colour coded in order to highlight the degree of urgency with which upgrades were needed to meet the norms and standards regulations.
In 1996, two years after the first democratic election, roughly one in 10 (369) of Limpopo’s schools had no toilet facilities at all – a legacy of the apartheid government. By May 2011, that number had dropped to 36 schools, and by 2014 the National Education Infrastructure Management System (NEIMS) report stated that there were no schools without toilets in the province.
Public records of schools with pit toilets are available from 2011.
Section27 asked the Limpopo Department of Education about the sudden drop in the number of schools with pit toilets over the course of this year. The LDE has not responded.
What we do know is that 19 schools with pit toilets that Section27 has collected data on this year are not on the list the Limpopo Department of Education handed to the court on 31 August. That's 22% of the 86 schools.
If the same proportion of schools has been left off the LDE's list, then there may be at least 800 more schools with pit toilets that the department appears to have forgotten. That would bring the total number of schools with pit toilets to around 2,300 schools, which is closer to the number in the January NEIMS report.
In its 2015 Infrastructure Norms and Standards Implementation Plan, the Limpopo Education Department stated: "... a credible plan can only be based on credible information... Knowledge of backlogs forms the backbone of any plan to eliminate them, but it is not currently possible to confirm the infrastructure backlogs in the province."
It seems that credible information on backlogs is still lacking.
The first publicly available NEIMS report states that 2,857 schools, or 73% of the province’s 3,924 schools have pit latrines.
11 April 2013
The next NEIMS report, released two years later, states that 2,820 schools have pit latrines – a drop of 37 schools. But the total number of schools in the province has dropped by 58 (from 3,924 to 3,866), so the proportion of schools with pit toilets remains at 73%.
23 October 2014
A year and a half later, the NEIMS report states that 2,574 Limpopo schools have pit toilets, a big drop of 246 schools. The total number of schools in the province drops by 37 (from 3,866 to 3,829) during the period, so the proportion of schools with pit toilets is now 67%, or two out of three schools. The report also states that 1,020 have pit latrines as their only form of sanitation.
12 May 2015
The next NEIMS report, published seven months later, states there are 2,537 schools with pit latrines, a drop of 37 schools. The total number of schools increases by 2 (from 3,829 to 3,831), so the proportion of schools with pit toilets is 66%, still two out of three schools. 1,001 schools have pit latrines only, 19 fewer than in October 2017.
15 November 2015
Limpopo’s first Infrastructure Norms and Standards Implementation Plan is signed off by the education MEC. Attached to this plan is list of schools and their access to sanitation. The sanitation status of two-thirds of the 3,980 public schools listed was marked as “to be confirmed”. 552 schools required sanitation, 41 schools did not require sanitation and the remaining 757 were either in progress (165), on hold (5) or had recently received sanitation through an LDE project (587). The CSIR was in the process of assessing all the schools in the province, the report said.
15 June 2016
The next NEIMS report states that 2,529 schools in Limpopo have pit latrines. This is 8 fewer schools than the 2015 NEIMS report. The total number of schools increases by 3 (from 3,831 to 3,834), so the proportion of schools with pit toilets remains 66%, or two out of three. 941 schools have pit latrines only, 60 fewer than in the 2015 report.
16 November 2016
The Limpopo Department of Education produced its Infrastructure Norms & Standards Report. This report contained the results of the CSIR assessment of the province’s schools. The CSIR found 8 schools with no sanitation facilities at all. The report does not state how many schools have pit toilets, but among documents subpoenaed from the CSIR by Section27 was a list containing 3,909 public ordinary schools of which 3,203 had at least one pit toilet on the premises. 897 schools have pit toilets as their only form of sanitation, 44 fewer than in the June NEIMS report.
2 February 2017
In response to a parliamentary question, the DBE publishes a list of 891 schools in Limpopo that it says have pit toilets only as of December 2016. This means the number of schools with pit toilets only has decreased by 50 since June 2016.
17 January 2018
The first NEIMS report for a year and a half states 2,524 schools have pit toilets – a decrease of 5 schools. The total number of schools remains 3,834, so the proportion of schools with pit toilets remains 66%, or two out of three. 916 schools have pit toilets as the only form of sanitation, a decrease of only 25 since 2015, but an increase of 25 since the parliamentary response.
16 March 2018
In response to the death of Lumka Mketwa in a pit toilet at her school in the Eastern Cape, President Cyril Ramaphosa calls for an audit of unsafe school sanitation within a month and a plan to fix unsafe school sanitation throughout the country within three months.
22 March 2018
The Minister of Basic Education releases a media statement containing a table that states there are 2,523 schools with pit toilets, one less than in January. But the total number of schools has also decreased by one (3,834 to 3,833).
11 April 2018
A copy of the rapid sanitation audit requested by the president, and dated 11 April, is given to Section27. It states that Limpopo has 2,226 schools "confirmed with proper sanitation but pits not demolished". There are also 769 “confirmed schools with pit latrines only”. This appears to mean that 2,995 schools in total have pit toilets. This is 472 schools more than stated in the National Department of Education's list a month before. The total number of schools in the province remains 3,833.
14 August 2018 (SAFE Initiative audit result)
At the launch of his “SAFE” Initiative, President Ramaphosa releases another school sanitation audit result. It states that there are 1,360 schools with pit latrines. This is an astonishing 46% drop since the Minster’s March media statement.
31 August 2018
The Limpopo Department of Education hands in its audit of the province’s school sanitation facilities to the High Court in Polokwane. The affidavit includes a list of all the schools in Limpopo that have pit toilets as of 18 July 2018. There are 1,489 entries on the list, but 12 schools appear twice, and one is a pre-primary school, so there are in fact only 1,474 individual schools listed. This is 114 schools with pit toilets more than the president’s SAFE Initiative audit has, but 1,049 less than the March NEIMS report. The total number of schools is 3,752.