It has been eight years since the tragic death of five-year-old Michael Komape who drowned in a school pit toilet in Chebeng, Limpopo. Organisations such as Section 27, Centre for Child Law and Equal Education have and continue to fight for children in South Africa. Michael Komape could be anyone, the child next door could be next. The reality is that public schools are no longer safe spaces. The Department of Basic Education should work hard to follow the minimum norms and standards for public school infrastructure, especially around classrooms, safe and adequate toilets, safe drinking water and libraries, so they can promote safe, quality education in public schools.

Much of our apartheid legacy still remains in democratic South Africa. A major issue that is perpetuated by the democratic struggle heroes – now our leaders – is our inadequate basic education system that continues to create and exacerbate stark inequalities and chronic underperformance. The Department of Basic Education (DBE) and public schools in rural South Africa experienced a huge tragedy when Michael Komape, drowned in a pit toilet at school. Michael was a child who looked forward to participating in school activities, gaining new friends and learning; but unfortunately he drowned in faeces at school instead. Many of us have benefitted from the services provided by DBE. However, one must admit that the success came with struggles that many children in private schools do not experience: overcrowding, pit toilets, absence of teachers, and no textbooks or reading material. The very struggles we faced before, children are now facing today, and yet we are meant to evolve.

“The right to quality education includes having a school where learners are safe to learn and have the adequate infrastructure and facilities to do so,” says the executive director of Amnesty International South Africa. To promote a thriving education space and provide quality education, the space in which learning takes place must be conducive. A conducive environment includes a hygienic environment, safe drinking water, proper chairs and tables, classrooms that are not overcrowded, and teachers that are not overworked and understaffed. Provinces like Gauteng have high rates of overcrowding in public schools, while Kwa-Zulu Natal (KZN), Eastern Cape and Limpopo continue to have schools with poor sanitation such as the use of pit latrines which were deemed illegal. Poor sanitation does not only affect the learners but teachers too, as in most cases pit latrines are unsafe, unsanitary and unhygienic. Although strides have been made since apartheid in increasing access to education, the reality in many of our public schools is the failure to reach targets for proper infrastructure. Children’s experiences of education in South Africa is still dependent on where they are born, the wealth of their parents, and the colour of their skin. The question is why – when we are a democratic country and quality education is enshrined in the constitution?

In 2013, Minister Angie Motshekga and the government enacted the Minimum Norms and Standards for Public School Infrastructure law, which stipulates what a school should look like. The law also has clear deadlines – some of which the department has failed to meet. Now the minister has proposed to remove these deadlines which are listed below. The removal of these deadlines removes the element of the public being able to hold the government accountable:

● 2013: when the Norms and Standards for Public School Infrastructure was signed into law in 2013, it immediately banned plain pit latrines from all public schools in South Africa.
● 2016: By 29 November 2016, all public schools in South Africa should have been provided with some access to water, electricity and acceptable toilets. School buildings made from inappropriate materials – such as mud, asbestos, wood or zinc – should have been replaced.
● 2020: By 29 November 2020, all public schools in South Africa should have been provided with enough classrooms, enough electricity, enough water, and enough proper toilets. Schools should also have been provided with electronic connectivity (telephones and internet) and perimeter security (such as fences).
● 2023: By 29 November 2023, all public schools in South Africa should have been provided with libraries and laboratories.
● 2030: By 31 December 2030, all public schools in South Africa should have been provided with halls, sports fields and all the other infrastructure that the Norms and Standards for Public School Infrastructure demands.

The DBE has already missed the 2016 and 2019 deadlines. Many learners continue to learn in overcrowded classes, in schools without proper fencing, and with no water. Teachers are overwhelmed with work and spread over several subjects. Many learners and teachers continue to use illegal pit latrines in 2022! The DBE missing these deadlines means that they have not prioritised the needs of learners. Therefore, the proposal by the Minister to completely eliminate these deadlines must be considered inhumane. The Minister is proposing that the members of the public give up the one piece of leverage that can be used to keep the department on its toes and delivering services. Minister Motshekga is eliminating the people aspect in governance by proposing that these deadlines be removed.

These deadlines help the public to keep the department accountable especially as public schools accommodate almost 12 million learners. The removal of these deadlines means that we will keep waiting for these services to be provided for years on end. The Department of Education in Limpopo stated during Komape and others vs Limpopo Department of Basic Education (LDoE) and others, that it will take them 14 years to remove pit latrines in public schools within the province. The indifference of our leaders continues to be evident in their responses to the issues affecting the poor population, from budget cuts, to implementation plans. The department must restore dignity in our schools by fixing infrastructure and ensuring that the infrastructure is of proper quality – that they would see their own children using.