SECTION27 and Basic Education For All (BEFA) commemorated the first anniversary of the death of Michael Komape on Tuesday 20 January 2015. Michael, a Grade R pupil, drowned in a pit toilet at his school in Chebeng village, Limpopo in 2014. This unnecessary tragedy highlighted the need to improve school sanitation and ensure the right to education as envisaged in the Constitution.

At the time of the tragedy, Mark Heywood wrote an op-ed contrasting the reactions to the death of Michael and Reva Steenkamp, a model who was also killed in a toilet by her superstar boyfriend, Oscar Pistorius for the Daily Maverick. You can read the entire piece below:

The model and the schoolboy: a tale of two deadly toilets and what it says about us

  • MARK HEYWOOD 
Does anybody remember the name of the little boy who died after falling into the pit of a toilet at his school in Chebeng Village, Seshego, Limpopo? This is an apposite question with which to begin as I ask you to consider the tale of two toilets, two lives and two very different public and legal responses to their unnatural deaths.

In February 2013 in one toilet a beautiful young white woman, Reeva Steenkamp, cowered as she tried to hide from a killer’s gun. A toilet was not a place where she would have expected to die, especially in a big gleaming and outwardly secure mansion. Whatever the ultimate finding of the judge in the murder trial that begins next week, it must have been a totally terrifying few moments for Reeva as the bullets smashed through the wooden door and entered her body.

In January 2014 in another toilet, a six-year school old black child went to relieve himself during break-time. It was the start of a new term and he had been excited to join his siblings at school. A school is meant to be a place of safety and every day millions of parents release their children into the care of the state believing it is just that.

What exactly caused the little boy to fall into the stinking pit and into the heaped feces within it, we do not know. One report said that the rusty, corroded iron sheet that served as a toilet seat gave way. Neither do we know for how long the young boy flayed around, trying to get a grip on something before drowning in a foul waste. But at some point, unable to breathe, he must have given up, knowing his short life was about to end.

It is said that after his absence was raised by another little boy, a cursory search initiated by the school teacher failed to find him, leading to a call to his mother who rushed to the school with the frantic love of a mother. She soon found his body in the toilet, telling us that she “looked inside of the pit, saw his hand lifted up but she could not see the whole body and then she cried and fainted on the spot.”

Next week the trial of Oscar Pistorius, the murder accused in the case of the first death in a toilet, begins.

In respect for the life of Reeva Steenkamp, there has been a massive public, media and legal response. The state has had its best investigators on the case for over a year, carrying out intricate, expensive and time-consuming forensic examinations. A senior judge and two assessors have been appointed and the government will spend uncounted millions of rand on both the prosecution and the judicial process. Evidence will be examined with a fine tooth comb.

On top of all this will be an unprecedented media frenzy, generating debates about domestic violence, intimate partner violence, murder and much more. The media too, claiming public interest, will spend massive amounts on its coverage.

In stark contrast, there is little to say of the response to the little boy’s death. For a few days there was an intense outrage and anger amongst callers to radio stations. But there was no media inquiry. No sending of troops of journalists to Limpopo to investigate the deadly toilets of the province’s schools. Except for one solitary article, no effort was made to reconstruct his little life, to talk to his friends, or to represent the grief of his mother, father, siblings and friends. Nothing was done to try to make the little boy a child again … at least in our imagination.

On 26 January the boy was buried. The guilty toilets were bulldozed and quickly replaced by new toilets – demonstrating that sometimes the Department of Basic Education can respond with greater urgency to people’s needs. Is all it takes is a death. School resumed.

But since that fateful day there appears to have been no investigation at all into his death by either the police or the Department of Basic Education. The cause of his death was apparently a closed book. There appears to be no question of culpability or responsibility.

Indeed it might seem that our police and education authorities regard child death by drowning in a toilet as natural.

So, as you start to be consumed in the Oscar and Reeva story, it’s worth pondering these contrasting responses and asking what they say about our society and us, for we are complicit. According to our Constitution, we are all equal before the law, we each have a right to dignity and life which the state must respect, protect, promote and fulfill. All our children have a right to a basic quality education.

Yet much less value seems attached to the boy and his family than to the beautiful model and her sports-star boyfriend.

The maxim here might be that in South Africa all lives are equal, but some lives are less equal than others. Why is this?

Oh, and yes, the little boy’s name was Michael Komape. His mum said he was a “cute, smart boy” who was in a jolly mood when he left for school that day.

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