School sanitation: Ramaphosa accused of “pretending to care”

SA Human Rights Commission, Equal Education and SECTION27 respond to president’s SAFE initiative

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Children use a field as a toilet at Ntshingeni Senior Primary near Cofimvaba in the Eastern Cape. Archive photo: Yamkela Ntshongwana

The South African Human Rights Commission and Equal Education have pointed out that President Cyril Ramaphosa’s new campaign to fix school toilets comes just days after the Department of Basic Education decided to appeal against a court ruling that the state must fix school infrastructure.

The SAFE (Sanitation Appropriate for Education) campaign, launched at a breakfast with CEOs of major companies in Pretoria on Tuesday, has already raised R45 million from the corporate sector to fix sanitation in schools, according to a press release from the department. The department said 3,898 schools needed sanitation.

“The … initiative will spare generations of young South Africans the indignity, discomfort and danger of using pit latrines and other unsafe facilities in our schools,” said Ramaphosa at the SAFE launch.

The Human Rights Commission and Equal Education pointed out that the initiative comes days after a decision by the department to appeal against a ruling of the Bhisho High Court. The ruling, delivered on 19 July, confirmed the responsibility of the state to provide essential infrastructure in schools.

While Ramaphosa was speaking, two Equal Education leaders, one of them general secretary Noncedo Madubedube, held up placards linking the appeal against the judgment to the SAFE campaign and accusing the state of “pretending to care about sanitation” and of being “disingenuous”.

The Bhisho ruling followed a sustained campaign by Equal Education to get the government to adopt and implement Norms and Standards for School Infrastructure. The department has asked for leave to appeal against the ruling to the Supreme Court of Appeal and has also approached the Constitutional Court.

In a statement on Wednesday, the SA Human Rights Commission called on the department to withdraw its appeal and to use the money instead to support the SAFE campaign.

Deputy Director of the Equal Education Law Centre Daniel Linde said it did not make sense that the state wanted to appeal against the judgement.

“We do not understand why the president on the one hand would launch an initiative like SAFE, while his government attempts to argue that it cannot be bound to fix schools.”

Linde said the Bhisho court had ruled that the state could not escape its duties to fix schools. “The Bhisho High Court declared unconstitutional the clause in the norms and standards for school infrastructure regulations which said that schools only have to be fixed if the Department of Basic Education receives cooperation and resources from other organs of state responsible for school infrastructure generally. “

He said EE had written to the president and to the department after the judgement asking for meetings, but neither had responded.

In addition, Linde said, the state had not acknowledged requests to see the latest infrastructure reports and plans, which must be provided no later than 29 November every year. “Only after we made an application in terms of the Promotion of Access to Information Act were the provincial plans provided, and even then we were not provided with the plan for the Eastern Cape, the province with the greatest school infrastructure backlog and where Lumka Mkhethwa died in a pit latrine just five months ago.”

Similarly, he said, instead of meeting the deadline set by the Polokwane High Court in the Michael Komape case to fix sanitation in Limpopo, the state had applied to extend that deadline at the last minute.

“There is no proper explanation of why the application was made at the last minute, or why they don’t have a proper plan more than four years after Michael’s death.”

“It is this callousness, and the appeal of the … judgment, that creates a disjuncture between the state’s conduct and the launch of the SAFE initiative,” said Linde.

He said EE hoped that the initiative would help create safe sanitation in schools. “But it must be backed by political will to be held accountable and to acknowledge that the duty to fix schools is urgent and falls on the state as a whole.”

The Human Rights Commission said it welcomed the SAFE initiative but “lamented” the decision of the Department of Basic Education to appeal against the Bhisho ruling. “That judgment marked a significant milestone in confirming the essential nature of infrastructure as a component of the right to a basic education. On this basis, the commission calls upon the department to withdraw its appeal against the judgment and rather use the related resources towards the furtherance of the SAFE initiative.”

“We regret that the SAFE initiative has come after a long battle … The commission hopes that this initiative will go a long way in finally securing one of the most fundamental rights of learners in schools.”

SECTION27, which represented the family of Michael Komape, who drowned in a pit latrine at school, in court, said in a press statement: “We are concerned that President Ramaphosa did not present a concrete, measurable, funded and time-bound plan for the urgent alleviation of unsafe sanitation conditions in schools. Moreover, the initiative aims to roll out measures to improve sanitation in a 12 to 18 month timeframe. This is unacceptably slow for measures that are urgent and which we know will save children’s lives.”

“The SAFE Initiative, rather than providing long-awaited solutions to the sanitation crisis, is another indication of unwillingness to treat dangerous school sanitation as an absolute emergency. The state has not seen fit to allocate additional funds to eliminate unsafe infrastructure in schools. Nor has it provided a plan for the use of funds it seeks to raise from the private sector.”

TOPICS:  Education

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