Tuesday 28 May

In the mission to eradicate pit toilets, this new progress monitor democratises data for Limpopo schools

pit toilets opinion


Daily Maverick
Demichelle Petherbridge

For years it has been almost impossible for civil society to know whether the removal of pit toilets and other inadequate sanitation would ever be prioritised by the Limpopo education department – while pupils faced the daily risk of injury and even death in poor sanitation conditions.

On Friday, 24 March, SECTION27 launched the Michael Komape Sanitation Progress Monitor, which is designed to track the Limpopo department of education’s (LDoE) progress in eradicating pit toilets and other forms of inadequate sanitation at public schools in the province. 

This online tool was launched at Daily Maverick’s Human Rights Festival held in celebration of Human Rights Month, which marks an important milestone in the fight for safe and dignified sanitation at schools in Limpopo. 

The tool is named after Michael Komape, the five-year-old boy who drowned in a pit toilet at his school in Limpopo in 2014. It pays homage to him and his family and the many years they have travelled with SECTION27 in litigating for the eradication of pit toilets in schools in that province.

For years, it has been almost impossible for civil society to know whether the removal of pit toilets and other inadequate sanitation would ever be prioritised by the LDoE – while pupils faced the daily risk of injury and even death in poor sanitation conditions.

The progress monitor changes this landscape by providing all the data SECTION27 has received from the department since 2021, through plans and progress reports, on an online platform. 

The tool makes available information that is usually kept within the confines of the Department of Education

This includes information provided by the LDoE on the names of schools with sanitation needs in Limpopo, the condition of sanitation at each school, the sanitation facilities that must be built for schools to be compliant with the regulations relating to the Minimum Uniform Norms and Standards for Public School Infrastructure (“Infrastructure Regulations”), the status of projects, and the implementing agents responsible for the work being undertaken.

Mahlodumela Primary School, where Michael Komape fell into a pit latrine in 2014. (Photo: Gallo Images / Sunday Times / Simphiwe Nkwali)

The tool was launched online so that SECTION27 could sustainably monitor the vast amount of data it receives from the LDoE, as well as empower civil society with accessible information on the steps the LDoE is taking to ensure sanitation facilities comply with the Infrastructure Regulations. 

Laura Grant, director of Media Hack and co-creator of the progress monitor, says the tool contains the most complete data available to the public on the LDoE’s progress in eradicating inadequate sanitation, and notes it is important to democratise data in this way so people have the ability to monitor progress. 

The tool, therefore, makes available information that is usually kept within the confines of the Department of Education so that individuals are able to actively engage with the data and share in holding the LDoE accountable.

Why only data since December 2021?

Following Michael’s tragic death, his family – represented by SECTION27 – took the Department of Basic Education (DBE), the LDoE and the school governing body of Mahlodumela Primary School to court to claim damages.

In 2018, the Polokwane High Court awarded some of the family’s claims (the family subsequently appealed this and was awarded further damages in the Supreme Court of Appeal). Surprisingly, the judge also granted a structural order that the DBE and LDoE develop a plan to supply and install sufficient, accessible, clean, safe and private toilets at all rural schools in Limpopo that have pit toilets. 

The pit latrine that Michael Komape drowned in. This photo was taken by Charles Malebana shortly after the incident. (Photo: Supplied)

The LDoE delivered its plan in August 2018, which was found to be inaccurate, incomplete and, most importantly, intended to only remove pit toilets at schools between 2026 and 2030. Despite SECTION27 raising its concerns, the LDoE submitted a new plan two years later, adding to the already confusing information it had provided.

Outraged, SECTION27 returned to the Polokwane High Court in 2021, challenging the constitutionality of the LDoE’s plans and demanding their revision. In its judgment handed down in September 2021, the court declared the LDoE’s plans unconstitutional, unreasonable and in violation of its previous order. It also ordered that the LDoE come up with a new plan and report on its progress every six months. 

In December 2021, the LDoE provided its revised and improved plan. SECTION27 has also received two progress reports since then, and it is this data that has been populated into the Michael Komape Sanitation Progress Monitor for the public’s use.  

The quality of the LDoE’s data

Based on the LDoE’s previous attempts to formulate a plan, the data now being provided is more organised and accessible – an important victory in itself. 

The LDoE has also made a serious attempt to adhere to the high court’s 2021 order and provide the information requested, which includes details on how schools’ sanitation needs were identified and how these would be prioritised. 

Significantly, the LDoE has classified schools with only pit toilets as “Priority 1” schools and has committed to replacing all pit toilets at these schools by 31 March 2023, while providing mobile toilets as interim measures during construction. 

The LDoE has also committed to addressing schools that have some appropriate sanitation, but not enough (“Priority 2” schools) between 2024 and 2027, while addressing schools with sufficient, appropriate sanitation that is in need of refurbishment (“Priority 3” schools) between 2027 and 2029. Priority 3 schools may also have unused pit toilets on their premises, which the LDoE has promised to demolish by 31 March 2023. 

Michael Komape. (Photo: Supplied / News24.com / Wikipedia)

While the quality of the LDoE’s data has improved, SECTION27 still encountered problems with the LDoE’s new plan. 

SECTION27 found many schools with only pit toilets missing from the LDoE’s list of Priority 1 schools. This meant the replacement of pit toilets at these schools was initially not planned or budgeted for, and would not occur by 31 March 2023. These schools would also initially not have received mobile toilets. 

Data on a school’s sanitation status was also, at times, missing or unclear, while the LDoE’s calculations of Priority 2 schools were incorrect. In addition, the calculation of the sanitation needs at each school was confusing, and no information has been provided on when work at a specific school will commence, making it difficult for a school to know exactly when to expect work to start and finish. 

SECTION27 also has concerns with two of the three methods the LDoE has used to prioritise schools, and has difficulty verifying these. 

On Friday, 24 March 2023, SECTION27 launched the Michael Komape Sanitation Progress Monitor. (Image: SECTION27)

Importantly, SECTION27 analysed the budgetary information provided by the LDoE, and it is evident that the department is allocating insufficient funds towards the implementation of its revised plan and may not be able to meet its targets. 

While the LDoE’s plans are not perfect, the data provided is still the most comprehensive to date and the department’s continuous provision of progress reports allows for a high level of accountability and transparency which, through the tool, civil society can now monitor.

The way forward

SECTION27 expects to receive the LDoE’s progress reports every six months until all schools in Limpopo are provided with adequate sanitation and all pit toilets have been demolished, with the next report due in June 2023. 

The tool will be updated to include this progress as well as any additional information provided by the LDoE in the interim. 

Until then, SECTION27 is monitoring the LDoE’s progress in meeting its 31 March deadline, by which time it must replace pit toilets at 210 Priority 1 schools and demolish unused pit toilets at Priority 3 schools.

A court judgment compelling the LDoE to provide plans to end the crisis of poor sanitation in Limpopo schools is only half the victory. The real challenge lies in obtaining adequate plans and ensuring these are implemented properly. 

The Michael Komape Sanitation Progress Monitor is designed to ensure that we, as civil society, will be sufficiently equipped to monitor this implementation and call the LDoE to account, especially when the lives of our pupils are at stake. DM/MC