By Chandni Gopal and Zandile Ngubeni

Human Rights month serves a dual purpose; we are reminded of the sacrifices that accompanied the struggle for the attainment of democracy in South Africa but are also afforded the opportunity to reflect on progress made in the promotion and protection of our hard-earned human rights. With this year also marking the 20th anniversary of the signing of the final draft of the Constitution, a reflection on the state of human rights in our country is even more crucial.

While the last two decades of democracy can boast tremendous gains, for the average South African born into poverty, or in a township or rural area, their place and circumstances of birth still determines their path in life. Education should provide the means to transport children and their families out of poverty. And the protection, promotion and realisation of constitutional rights should be at the heart of and core of government business. But there is a long road ahead.

Basic education and sanitation – a state of despair
It cannot be denied that the state of basic education is dismal. Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga herself decried the state of education in “former African schools”, highlighting the rampant lack of textbooks, inadequate school infrastructure, and the promotion of failing education department administrators as key issues. The minister described the basic education system as comprising “a Cinderella system deprived of resources and characterised by pockets of disasters … akin to a national crisis”.

Safe, adequate and reliable water sanitation is an intrinsic part of section 29 of the Constitution. Moreover, water sanitation impacts on the right to human dignity in section 10 of the Constitution. Basic water sanitation is part and parcel of the right to water and intimately connected to and impacts on the right to health and life. In the context of basic education in schools each of these rights in turn impact on the rights of children, whose interests are of paramount importance in terms of section 28(2) of the Constitution.

It is undeniable that sanitation infrastructure at public schools vary substantially, and continue to reflect historical resource allocation and distribution patterns, with the worst conditions inordinately affecting black learners, particularly in rural and township schools.

By the department of education’s own statistics, released in 2014, we are confronted by a bleak picture of the state of sanitation in the majority of South African schools (National Education Infrastructure Management System Standard Report 2014). Of the 23 740 public schools in the country 474 have no sanitation facilities, 4 681 are forced to make do with an unreliable water supply and 604 have no water. A chilling 49% either have no sanitation facilities or are forced to rely on pit latrines or a combination of pit latrines and other facilities. That is just short of half of all public schools.

The raw numbers are harrowing. The stories from learner’s themselves are unbearable. As part of a broad-based campaign, Equal Education undertook one of the largest social audits in the country – carried out over the course of two years – in an effort to provide a complete picture of the sanitation crisis in Gauteng schools. More recently, Equal Education in the Western Cape conducted a social audit of 250 schools in the Western Cape which included an extensive sanitation survey. The results of the social audits and broader research gives insight into the extensive challenges faced by learners with limited access to water and adequate sanitation.

Learners report that, due to poor sanitation facilities (or the complete lack thereof), they actively avoid going to the toilet, which leads to poor concentration in class and health problems. High learner to toilet ratios in many schools also result in diminished time for learning as learners are forced to stand in long queues for toilets. Learners are often forced to leave school to find more acceptable sanitation facilities, missing learning and becoming vulnerable to rape and assault. Lack of toilet paper and soap leads to learners contracting illnesses from the toilets, resulting in time away from school. Female learners face the indignity of not having access to feminine hygiene products and disposal facilities, resulting in them missing school during their menstrual periods.

The issues are urgent: the very lives of our children are being placed at risk. In early 2014, during the Gauteng Sanitation Campaign, a tragic incident took place in the rural Chebeng Village in Limpopo. Six-year-old Michael Komape died when he fell into a dilapidated pit toilet at his school. More recently, a caretaker in the Eastern Cape fell into an unsafe pit latrine toilet. These cases continue to highlight the extreme and fatal threat that poor sanitation infrastructure at schools poses to young learners and school staff.

Policies, mobilisation and political will – finding a solution
Despite the grim picture, South Africa still lacks an appropriate school sanitation framework. We have seen that when faced with pressure from civil society, governments are inclined to exercise positive political will to execute and implement policies that speak to the needs of the people.

The campaign by Equal Education to ensure that all schools have basic infrastructure first culminated in the publication of the regulations relating to Minimum Uniform Norms and Standards for School Infrastructure in November 2013 (infrastructure norms). The infrastructure norms set the bare minimum infrastructure standards which all schools must comply with. This includes standards for an adequate water supply and appropriate sanitation. We have been vocal in our stance that the department of basic education timeously complies with the requirements for school infrastructure contained in the infrastructure norms. In this regard, the infrastructure norms require that schools that have no access to any form of water supply and sanitation must be prioritised and receive these services by November 29 2016, and by November 29 2020, all schools must have access to adequate water and sanitation.

The reality is that the infrastructure norms have not been complied with and are, on their own, simply not enough. It is imperative that the provision of sanitation envisioned in the infrastructure norms are supported and complemented by further legislation and policies aimed at promoting access to sanitation. To this end, the department of water and sanitation recently published the Draft National Water Sanitation Policy (draft policy) in an effort to promote further access to sanitation. In comments on the draft policy, we note that the draft policy leaves many gaps in respect of provision of adequate sanitation in schools.

Indeed, the draft policy admits that the “policy position remains weak related to public institutional [including school] sanitation”. This underscores the need for the draft policy, as it relates to schools, to be improved upon. Strengthening the regulatory and policy framework is key in ensuring that learners are ultimately provided with adequate sanitation.

The numerous challenges, and their far-reaching consequences, underscore the need for and importance of a comprehensive policy framework to urgently tackle the appalling state of school infrastructure in thousands of South African schools. The right to basic education is a Constitutional imperative, and the right to adequate water sanitation is a component of this imperative.

No child should suffer the indignity of lacklustre and absent sanitation. The struggle for equal and quality education is a call to arms in what is truly a life-and-death fight for poor, black children.

Chandni Gopal is a legal adviser at the Equal Education Law Centre in Johannesburg and Zandile Ngubeni is the head of Equal Education Gauteng.


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