School Sanitation: SECTION27’s campaign for dignified school toilets

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Our work on sanitation in schools has focused mostly on schools in Limpopo so far. Limpopo schools have a serious shortage of safe sanitation. According to 2014 data, a reported 3000 schools were still using dangerous and unsanitary pit toilets. Updated figures from 2019 show that of 3,932 schools in the province, there are still 2,226 schools that have unlawful pit toilets. Progress made to eradicate pit toilets from the province has been slow.

In 2012, when we were working in Limpopo on the #TextbooksMatter campaign, we became aware of the problem of school sanitation. We then began an ongoing campaign of writing to and meeting with the Department of Basic Education (DBE) and the Limpopo Department of Education (LDE) in an attempt to raise awareness of the issues of unsafe and undignified toilets and sanitation infrastructure at schools, and get the departments to improve the situation. See full timeline that lead to our court action here.

This issue became all the more urgent in January 2014, when six-year-old Michael Komape fell into one of the pit toilets at his school and drowned. We have been working on the Komape case to improve the sanitation situation in Limpopo schools so that this never happens again. We decided to take the Department of Basic Education and Limpopo Department of Education to Court for their failure to provide safe and dignified school sanitation infrastructure to learners.

The Case: Rosina Komape and others v. The Department of Basic Education and the Limpopo Department of Basic Education

Seeking closure and justice, Michael’s family claimed damages from the Minister of Basic Education, the Limpopo MEC for Education and the school principal, on the basis that they acted negligently and in violation of learners’ constitutional right to a basic education. The family also asked for a declaration by the court as to the rights violated to clarify the State’s obligations regarding school sanitation. A court date was set down for the 13 November to 1 December 2017 before Deputy Judge President Fikile Mokgohloa at the Polokwane High Court – close to four years after Michael died in the hazardous pit toilet at his school.

During the court case, Michael’s parents – Rosina and James – and his sister, Lydia, took the witness stand. Lydia remained resolute and grew even more fierce in her contempt for the callous way the state had treated her brother’s death and family’s grief. Illustrating her trauma, she emphatically stated:

“we gave the Department of Education Michael alive, and they returned him as a corpse.”

Lydia Komape, in the case of Rosina Komape and Others v. Department of Basic Education and Others.

The Polokwane High Court Judgment

The Polokwane High Court found that the DBE had acted unconstitutionally by failing to provide safe and decent sanitation at schools. The court handed down a structural order, requiring the education authorities to audit the state of sanitation and provide a detailed plan for the eradication of unsafe sanitation to remedy the situation by 30 July 2018. The court however dismissed the claim for emotional shock, trauma and damages for grief.

Our appeal – taking the Komape Case to the Supreme Court of Appeal

In order to continue fighting for #Justice4Michael, SECTION27 and our partners appealed the Polokwane High Court judgment, seeking damages for the Komape family. After a five year legal battle, finally justice was achieved for Michael Komape – the Supreme Court of Appeal made a pronouncement about the undignified and unsafe nature pit-latrines. The ruling by the SCA has set an important precedent that “will hopefully in itself, move those in authority to take action to improve” sanitation in schools. The judgment is also clear about “the failure to provide proper sanitation facilities at schools is a breach of rights.” The Department of Basic Education has a responsibility to ensure that the right to basic education is achieved in an environment that does not breach the rights of learners to equality, dignity, life or a safe environment.

The SCA’s judgment on the appeal also recognised the grief and emotional shock that the Komape family endured in the prolonged battle with the DBE.

The front cover of the SCA judgment in the Rosina Komape and others v. Department of Basic Education and Others appeal.

A victory for the Komape family and a landmark judgment!

The Structural Order

SECTION27 is returning to the Polokwane High Court to continue the fight for safe, dignified and sanitary school toilets in Limpopo. We filed heads of argument with the court on 12 October 2020 to continue our, now six-year, legal battle against the Limpopo Department of Education (LDOE) and Department of Basic Education (DBE) to fight for the eradication of the pit toilets responsible for the deaths of learners around the country, including Michael Komape.


Safe school sanitation infrastructure report:

Front cover of our Limpopo Sanitation publication, showing learners using unsafe toilets.

TOWARDS SAFE AND DECENT SCHOOL SANITATION IN LIMPOPO: The Most Fundamental of Dignities.

After the tragic deaths of 5 year old Michael Komape and countless other learners who fell into pit latrines and drowned at school, SECTION27 researched the state of school sanitation infrastructure in Limpopo.

The plight of school sanitation in Limpopo

Toilets at Makwe Secondary School in Limpopo with the tagline: "THE SCHOOL TOILETS LIMPOPO FORGOT".

Visit our interactive site which breaks down the history of school sanitation infrastructure problems in Limpopo.

Conference Declaration: Michael Komape Norms & Standards for School Infrastructure Implementation Conference

Read more about our School Sanitation work:

The Michael Komape Case

It’s time to make safe school sanitation a national priority  

President Ramaphosa, we require a more precise definition of what “not fit for purpose” means. Do schools with collapsing brick and mortar cubicles qualify within this category?

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Launch of the SAFE initiative: Proof will be in the pudding

The DBE’s approach to issues of school sanitation and infrastructure more broadly have been far more obstructive than the SAFE Initiative might suggest. The difficulties of unsafe school sanitation are not new. Together with community-based organisation Basic Education for All (BEFA), SECTION27 has consistently raised the challenges with the DBE as far back as 2012. In this time we have seen no real urgency or political will to mitigate this emergency. And we have seen the urgency of the situation intensify.

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Komape family applies for leave to appeal court judgment

JOHANNESBURG, 17 May 2018 – SECTION27, representing Michael Komape’s family, has started proceedings to appeal the judgement handed down in the Limpopo High Court. The judgement rejected the civil claim by the Komape family for damages

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Komape Judgement – Media Statement

SECTION27 notes with mixed reaction the judgment handed down in the trial of the tragic death of Michael Komape by Judge Muller.While we welcome the structural interdict to provide adequate and safe sanitation for learners in the Limpopo

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#Justice4Michael

These postcards are part of the #Justice4Michael advocacy  campaign. Thousands of learners in Gauteng, Pretoria and Cape Town wrote messages of support to the Komape family or a message for the MEC of Education in Limpopo, Ishmael Kgetjepe, sharing their thoughts and feelings on the untimely death of Michael Komape.

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