After Children Die in Pit Toilets, South Africa Vows to Fix School Sanitation

A student walking into one of the few working bathrooms at a school in rural Nkomazi, Mpumalanga province in South Africa.

CAPE TOWN — Under pressure from education activists and the courts, South Africa’s government announced on Tuesday that it would tackle a crippling sanitation backlog in schools, where two children recently drowned in pit toilets, the only facilities available for hundreds of thousands of children across the country.

The initiative, known as Sanitation Appropriate for Education, would “spare generations of young South Africans the indignity, discomfort and danger of using pit latrines and other unsafe facilities in our schools,” said President Cyril Ramaphosa at a kickoff in Pretoria, calling the lack of school sanitation facilities an “emergency.”

But education activists said the announcement was long overdue and not nearly enough to solve a crisis that has been brewing for years.

Nearly 4,000 schools nationally are equipped only with pit toilets, according to government figures. In the Eastern Cape, South Africa’s poorest province, one in four public schools have no other options for students to relieve themselves.

The recent drownings have cast a harsh spotlight on the governing African National Congress. The party took power in 1994 promising both to roll out essential services and to overhaul education for South Africa’s black majority, who were denied opportunities for social, economic and political progress during apartheid.

Since then the government has fitted over 20,000 schools with flush toilets or “appropriate alternatives,” but many more schools remain without this essential equipment.

“We are painfully aware that we have not done enough, and we are not moving nearly as fast as we need to,” Mr. Ramaphosa said on Tuesday.

At the current rate, according to Passmark, a local data journalism unit, it would take around 19 years to replace all the pit toilets in South Africa’s schools.

The rollout of school infrastructure, including toilets, has been slowed by pervasive graft in provincial departments, experts say. Even Mr. Ramaphosa’s deputy, David Mabuza, has been accused of enriching himself and cultivating patronage by siphoning funds from education budgets while serving as a provincial education minister.

Education had become “a big, big vortex” for corruption, said Ralph Mathekga, an analyst and author of a recent book on Mr. Ramaphosa. “So much money has been wasted on procurement,” Mr. Mathekga added.

Yet after narrowly winning an acrimonious battle for the presidency of the A.N.C. last year, and with a rival faction still holding significant power in the party, Mr. Ramaphosa depends on support from officials like Mr. Mabuza. “There is no way he could come out and publicly criticize them,” Mr. Mathekga said.

Mr. Ramaphosa’s announcement on Tuesday made no mention of graft, mentioning only that current models of sanitation were “expensive.” Privately, Mr. Mathekga said, there was “growing frustration in national government, who are powerless while people are looting at provincial level.”

Mr. Ramaphosa also failed to mention that last Friday his government had appealed a High Court judgment compelling the education department to implement basic upgrades.

Equal Education, the nonprofit organization that had won the case, wrote in a statement: “It is difficult to reconcile the SAFE Initiative launched today with the State’s lodging of an appeal in which it argues that it is not obliged to urgently fix schools.”

“There was a disingenuous element in today’s announcement,” said Daniel Linde, the deputy director of the Equal Education Law Centre. “And there’s been no political explanation offered for it.”

The basic upgrades, termed Norms and Standards, had themselves been a result of litigation by Equal Education and other activist groups, Mr. Linde said, adding: “We see constant attempts by government to make excuses for not delivering.”

The education department had missed its own deadline for carrying out the upgrades, leading to last month’s High Court challenge, which aimed to shut down legislative loopholes that had allowed delays. “We don’t want to waste time, or for the government to waste more money, on further litigation, but now we have to,” Mr. Linde said.

Activists stepped up campaigns over school toilets after the 2014 death of Michael Komape in Limpopo Province, where two in three schools still have pit toilets. Komape’s mother fainted when she saw his hand sticking out from a mound of feces. This March, Lumka Mkhethwa, who was also just 5 years old, died in the Eastern Cape, renewing calls for the government to address the crisis.

Axolile Notywala, general secretary of the Social Justice Coalition, said that sanitation problems in South Africa extended well beyond schools. “Where children don’t have toilets in schools, they go often home and don’t have access either,” he said.

“Millions of rands,” Mr. Notywala added, had been lost to corruption, with private companies linked to government officials contracted to build and service toilets.

With national elections looming next year, Mr. Notywala said Tuesday’s news was “electioneering.” “It says: We care about your votes, we care about getting power, and that’s all we care about. We don’t care about what happens to your children.”

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