In response to consistent calls by rural communities and civil society organisations for better infrastructure in schools, President Cyril Ramaphosa launched his initiative to provide schools with safe sanitation facilities on Tuesday.
The Sanitation Appropriate for Education (SAFE) initiative “will save lives and restore the dignity of tens of thousands of our nation’s children, as our Constitution demands”, Ramaphosa said at the launch.
Though the president lauded the initiative as “a catalyst for a new revolution in sanitation”, civil society organisation Equal Education has said it is difficult to reconcile Ramaphosa’s promises with government’s failure to engage with them on the delivery of sanitation infrastructure.
The initiative follows national outcry in the wake of the tragic deaths of 5-year-olds Michael Komape and Lumka Mketwa — who both drowned in pit latrines while at school in 2014 and 2018 respectively — and calls from civil society organisations to address the perceived failures of the basic education department in addressing school safety.
The department has come under fire in recent years for its slow delivery of school infrastructure, particularly in rural areas.
In March this year, Equal Education called for Education Minister Angie Motshekga’s dismissal, citing her failure to deliver on the 2013 Norms and Standards for School Infrastructure law, which sets out deadlines for fixing infrastructure in schools.
The infrastructure law says that by November 29 2016, schools must have been provided with access to water, electricity and decent sanitation.
In July, the Bhisho high court ruled in favour of Equal Education, declaring that aspects of the school infrastructure law had allowed government to indefinitely delay fixing unsafe and inadequate infrastructure in schools. The court ruled that these loopholes are unconstitutional and invalid.
According to Equal Education, government is appealing the high court judgment.
In his address, Ramaphosa said that nearly 4 000 schools across the country only have pit latrines. He called the “devastating deaths” of children at schools “the human consequences of service delivery delayed”.
“With today’s launch, we are calling on all South Africans, corporates, NGOs and international partners to be part of this ambitious, but necessary, effort to give effect to the fundamental human rights of our learners,” Ramaphosa said.
Ramaphosa pointed out that, through the Sustainable Development Goals, global leaders agreed to achieve “access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all” by 2030.
The president said South Africa is committed to attaining the targets of sanitation for all by 2030 and that government has made significant progress in addressing the backlogs.
In the public school system, since the advent of democracy, over 11 000 schools have been provided with flush toilets, he said.
But, Ramaphosa added: “Despite this progress, we are painfully aware that we have not done enough, and we are not moving nearly as fast as we need to.”
He said current models of sanitation are expensive, require large-scale networked infrastructure, have a high energy budget and use much more water than we have. The Water Research Commission has thus partnered with local and international organisations to realise a new approach to sanitation, Ramaphosa said.
These “innovative” solutions to South Africa’s sanitation infrastructure problem will deploy new toilet systems that are localised, usually off-grid, potentially energy producing and use minimal water.
Ramaphosa called on the private sector to be a part of the initiative through direct contributions to Safe.
He continued saying companies can adopt a group of schools as model schools for joint sanitation-water-energy off-grid solutions or they could be part of building a South African base for the industrialisation of these new technologies for local and global markets.
But Equal Education called the initiative “ironic” in light of government’s stalling of infrastructure delivery.
In a statement, the organisation said on Tuesday that it is difficult to reconcile Ramphosa’s Safe initiative, with government’s unwillingness to release school infrastructure improvement plans timeously and its appeal of the high court judgment, “in which it argues that it is not obliged to urgently fix schools”.
“Instead of immediately beginning to improve school infrastructure, Cyril Ramaphosa’s government is now wasting desperately needed state resources and time to appeal the judgment. They are joined in this farce by the nine Provincial Education MECs,” the statement reads.