Parents sue for boy's death in school toilet

Department denies pit latrine was unsafe

12 November 2017 - 00:02 By SIPHE MACANDA
The parents of Michael Komape, James and Rosina Komape, recall the day when their son died after he fell into a pit latrine at his school.
The parents of Michael Komape, James and Rosina Komape, recall the day when their son died after he fell into a pit latrine at his school.
Image: Simphiwe Nkwali

Rosina Komape will never forget the 15 minutes she spent sitting on the veranda at her son Michael's primary school wondering where he was, not realising he was drowning in a pool of faeces after the seat of the pit latrine he was using collapsed.

Since his death almost four years ago, not a day passes that Komape does not think of her child, and she is haunted by the harrowing sight of his tiny arm sticking up through the effluent.

On Monday, the horror of the six-year-old's death will be retold when a civil claim begins in the High Court in Polokwane. Public interest law centre Section27 is pursuing the claim, which seeks compensation for the Komape family.

But it will be little comfort for Komape and her husband, who have struggled to pick up the pieces following Michael's death at Mohlodumela Primary School in Chebeng village, outside Polokwane.

"Every time I see his friends going to school, I can just see him going with them. It brings back memories of his smile. Going past that school haunts me because my child died there and the feeling is painful," Komape told the Sunday Times.

Her memory of that day is vivid. "There was a drizzle and I got a call from the school at about 10 ... asking me about Michael's whereabouts. I was shocked because I knew he was at school. I rushed there and when I couldn't see him I sat on the stoep and asked if they had checked in the toilets."

She went to check the pit latrine herself but did not see him, not realising Michael was at the bottom. The body was only discovered after several hours.

Komape said the family was struggling to make ends meet as no one was working and there were six children to feed. "My husband depends on piecemeal jobs and I was a domestic worker. After Michael's death I struggled going to work as I was also on maternity leave. When I went back to work my employers had employed someone else."

Holding back tears, Michael's father, James Komape, said that before the incident they had never paid attention to sanitation at the school. "Our main focus areas were our kids' academics. We were worried about delivery of books and stationery and we wanted to put a stop to mushrooming taverns. We also wanted a sports ground and a library.

The Limpopo minister of basic education, the Limpopo education MEC, the principal and the school's governing body deny that Michael Komape's death was due to any wrongful conduct by the department or its employees.
The Limpopo minister of basic education, the Limpopo education MEC, the principal and the school's governing body deny that Michael Komape's death was due to any wrongful conduct by the department or its employees.
Image: Supplied

"My son's death almost broke this family. We hardly spoke to each other. But thanks to the counselling we received from Section27 we managed to pull through," he said.

Section27's Nomatter Ndebele said the NGO was seeking an apology from the Education Department and a declaratory order clarifying its role in sanitation at schools. It would let the court decide on suitable compensation for the family.

When the Sunday Times visited the school this week, children were playing in the playground. The principal refused a request for an interview, referring queries to the Education Department.

One parent, who did not want to be named, said there was a new principal and proper toilets had been built.

Another parent praised a move to have people monitoring pupils during break time.

Limpopo department of education spokesman Sam Makondo declined to comment on the case, but said that every year the department set aside R810-million for infrastructure for schools, including toilets.

The defendants are the minister of basic education, the Limpopo education MEC, the principal and the school's governing body. They deny that Michael's death was due to any wrongful conduct by the department or its employees. They also deny that the toilet seat could not support Michael's weight, or that it was unsafe.

"The incident can best be described as an accident," the court papers read.

A third of the world lacks lavatories

A third of the world’s people have no access to toilets, according to a 2015 report by the World Health Organisation and Unicef. Lack of sanitation is a leading cause of diarrhoea, which accounts for one-fifth of all deaths of children under the age of five in South Africa. In Limpopo, a staggering 49% of children do not have direct access to a toilet, according to the South African Early Childhood Review 2017.


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