600 pupils forced to share two pit latrines
Sedzani Masiphephethu and his more than 600 schoolmates have much more to worry about than just excelling in their studies at Rutandale Primary School.
The pupils of this school in Lufule village, outside Thohoyandou - about two hours' drive from Polokwane - have to contend with a block of pit latrines that collapsed last year. The ablution block has gaping holes that have not been covered since the collapse, posing a safety risk to the children.
Staff at the school say the education authorities have told them not to discuss the collapsed toilets. Their repeated requests for the rebuilding of the ablution block or at least to remove the rubble have fallen on deaf ears.
A report released by the Department of Basic Education last year shows vast inequalities in infrastructure in the nine provinces.
Western Cape and Gauteng are far ahead in providing infrastructure for their combined 3495 schools; Limpopo, KwaZulu-Natal and Eastern Cape lag far behind.
As far as ablution facilities are concerned, Eastern Cape has the highest number of schools still using pit latrines, 3160, followed by Limpopo with 2857 and KwaZulu-Natal with 2834.
It is these inequalities that are likely to lead to more legal action against the provincial and national education departments.
Sedzani's 39-year-old mother, Tondani Masiphephethu, is chairman of Rutandale Primary's governing body. She recently took the department to court with the help of human rights interest group Section 27.
The action resulted in a landmark legal battle that ended with a shaming court order that compelled the national education department and its provincial arm to provide textbooks to more than 1.7million pupils in more than 5000 schools by June 15.
"This [the toilets issue] was one of two reasons I approached Section 27. But it was decided that the textbooks matter must take first priority. Now that this hurdle is out of the way, we will be going to court to force the department to provide proper ablution facilities to all schools," she said.
Section 27 spokesman Nikki Stein confirmed that her organisation was investigating ablution and sanitation facilities. She said its representatives had visited a number of schools in Limpopo and discovered a widespread problem.
"All I can say for now is that this is definitely something we are looking into," Stein said.
Since some of the toilets at Rutandale Primary collapsed, 12-year-old Grade 4 pupil Sedzani and his classmates have had to share the remaining three pit latrines, using pages of their exercise books as toilet tissue.
The collapsed toilet block is about 25m from the open kitchen, where the school's feeding-scheme meals are prepared, posing a further health risk.
At Tlakulani Secondary School, in Mninginisi Block 2 village, near Giyani - 50km from Rutandale Primary - 600 pupils share two pit toilets - one for boys, the other for girls.
There are two other pit toilets shared by 36 members of the teaching and support staff.
Mzamani Nkuna, Tlakulani's deputy principal, said the department built a block of 12 flushing toilets 12 years ago but that they have never been used because of a lack of running water.
Nkuna said they relied on two boreholes for drinking water and to cook for pupils.
"It baffles me why the department built flushing toilets knowing we would not be able to use them without running water," he said.
With two blocks of five classrooms each - including two classes that serve as staff rooms - built in 1988, Tlakulani grapples with overcrowding, resulting in some pupils being taught under the trees.
Nkuna said they were promised brick-and-mortar classrooms in 2004, but the department had yet to deliver.
In an attempt to alleviate overcrowding, the department provided five mobile classrooms but the problem persists, with up to 60 pupils sharing one classroom.
Morris Ngobeni, secretary of the school governing body, teaches his Grade 11 life orientation class under a tree because the pupils have to make way for their schoolmates, who have to take lessons in the classroom for a different subject.
"We're in a very discouraging situation. We're in desperate need of additional classrooms. Although we are grateful to the department for giving us the containers, the need for proper classes remains. This area can get unbearably hot, making it unbearable to teach and learn in the mobile classrooms," Ngobeni said.
He said the department should have built a block of classrooms instead of flushing toilets that remain "a white elephant".
The school building is dilapidated and floors pock-marked. It also has broken windows and doors.
The school's science laboratory has been turned into a storeroom because there is no science equipment.
National Association of School Governing Bodies general secretary Matakanye Matakanye said the lack of learning material and ablution and sanitation facilities was a major problem.
He said a convention was planned for next month to discuss these issues, which he described as "a gross violation of our children's right to quality education guaranteed in our constitution".
"We've conducted research into these problems and it is a terrible situation that needs urgent attention," Matakanye said.
He said his association supported Section 27's intention to go to court to force the education authorities to provide proper ablution facilities as the department had a responsibility to provide suitable resources.
"This has to go to court because authorities are failing these children," he said.
At Hanyani Thomo Secondary School - one of the applicants in the textbook court case - staff would not let The Times team to enter the premises, saying the department had instructed them not to say anything.
Deputy principal Ron Tshabalala said: "The department feels we have embarrassed it enough. So, unfortunately, I cannot say anything or let you inside the school.
"I do not want to get into trouble."
The provincial department of education's spokesman, Pat Kgomo, acknowledged the dire state of ablution facilities and that it faced a serious infrastructure backlog.
"The infrastructure challenges in the province are well-known. We have said that we have a 20-year backlog on school buildings.
"Therefore, the schools mentioned are some of the many in the province that need attention. Ablution facilities are always a priority to the department. [We] are attending to the matter and will be able to assist the school as soon as possible," he said.