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Pit toilets in a pandemic: Limpopo schools still face challenges

Image: School toilet at Sebushi Primary School in 2018. The school was allocated to the Mvula Trust in 2018/19 to get new Enviro Loos and have its pit toilets demolished.

Kharivha Primary School in northern Limpopo has had a water problem for years. It relies on a community tap outside the school. It also has only plain pit toilets - which are illegal.

When the Covid-19 pandemic reached South Africa in March 2020, the school's sanitation problem got bigger. Its pit toilets were "no longer in good use", according to a community member, who didn't want to be named, and the children needed clean water to wash their hands to meet Covid hygiene standards.

The school approached the Limpopo Department of Education (LDOE) for help, and four mobile toilets and water tanks were delivered just before the schools reopened in June 2020.

Mmakadikwe Primary School, a few hours' drive away in central Limpopo, has a similar problem. It also has illegal pit toilets and no facilities for hand washing. Four mobile toilets were also delivered to the school for use during the Covid crisis.

The mobile toilets do not have hand-washing facilities, a critical component in curbing the spread of the coronavirus.

According to community members, both schools have used either department-supplied school assistants who sanitised learners' hands as they entered classrooms or schools supplied classrooms with bottles of soap and water to keep hands clean.

That the mobile toilets were only a temporary solution became clear in December, when the contractors returned and took them away.

After a new contractor was enlisted, mobile toilets were returned to the schools, several days into the new school year.

The schools still rely on the department to pay contractors to provide the mobile toilets.

The mobile toilets are not cheap, either. In 2020 the Department of Basic Education reported that it spent R180-million renting mobile toilets for 6 months in schools in Limpopo and the Eastern Cape so they could open again when the hard lockdowns ended. It spent another R600-million supplying water tanks and water for schools around the country.

The schools would be better served with a more permanent solution to their sanitation challenges.

In fact, the South African Schools Act says that all schools must have a sufficient water supply, available at all times, and sufficient water collection points and water use facilities to allow convenient access to water for drinking and personal hygiene.

School sanitation facilities should be easily accessible and promote health and hygiene standards. It also says plain pit toilets are not allowed in schools and that they should have been eradicated by November 2016.


A comprehensive and coherent plan

SECTION27 has been involved in a six-year legal battle with the Limpopo Department of Education for the eradication of plain pit toilets in schools in the province since five-year-old Michael Komape died when he fell into one at his school.

In 2018 the High Court in Polokwane ordered that the LDOE and the national Department of Basic Education supply each school in Limpopo with safe and dignified toilets, to conduct a comprehensive audit of sanitation needs, detailing the names and locations of all schools with pit toilets in the province, and provide a comprehensive plan for the installation of new toilets.

In August 2018 the LDOE submitted an affidavit to the court that contained two lists comprising 1,649 schools "in rural areas [of Limpopo] with pit toilets for use by the learners" as well as the estimated time period required to replace the pit toilets at those schools.

Both Kharivha and Mmakadikwe Primary Schools were on those lists. Three years later, they still have pit toilets.

In May 2020, the LDOE submitted to the court a 404-page update on the sanitation situation at Limpopo's public schools containing 12 spreadsheets detailing which schools had been put on various lists to receive sanitation upgrades.

In all that documentation, and more that we obtained from the LDOE in May 2021, we could find evidence that sanitation projects had been completed at 215 schools since 2018, most of them through the Accelerated School Infrastructure Development Initiative (ASIDI).

It's much harder to ascertain what work has been done on the other 1,434 schools on the two lists of schools with pit toilets from the documentation supplied by the LDOE, but we tried and the map below shows what we found.

Each dot represents one of the 1,649 schools listed as having pit toilets by the LDOE in 2018. The colours of the dots show whether sanitation upgrade projects have been completed, or scheduled, whether the school has merged with another school or been closed, or whether it simply appears on a list with no scheduled start or completion date. Many schools do not appear on a list at all. You can use the menu on the right to choose a category.


Schools with pit toilets in Limpopo

589 36% Schools that do not appear on a project list.
215 13% Schools where sanitation projects are listed as finished in 2018 or 2019.
596 36% Schools that appear on one or more project list, although it's not always clear whether those projects have been completed or have even started.
191 12% Schools that are on a list of projects scheduled to start between April 2021 and April 2023.
58 3.5% School that have closed or merged, or are assumed to have closed or merged because they do not appear in the most recent, Q4 2020, school masterlist for Limpopo.

We found 1,001 schools that appeared on at least one of the project lists to receive sanitation upgrades. Some schools appeared on more than one list.

Fifty-eight schools appear to have closed or merged with another school since 2018. Some are listed as closed or were merged, some simply do not appear on the latest available school masterlist, so they are assumed to have closed or merged.

We were able to find only 215 projects listed as completed, 185 of them were ASIDI projects completed in 2018. Another 191 projects were scheduled to start from April 2021.

That leaves 596 schools that appeared on one of the project lists, but we weren't able to confirm whether work on their sanitation facilities had been completed, or even started.

What do the infrastructure reports say?

The Department of Basic Education uses the National Education Infrastructure Management System (NEIMS) to capture school infrastructure information. The NEIMS reports show that between January 2018 and August 2019 the number of schools in Limpopo with no other sanitation but pit toilets decreased by 444, from 916 to 472. The number did not change between then and August 2020. Then April 2021's report stated that 219 schools with pit latrines only remain.

That means over the course of three years 697 schools have dropped off the pit toilets only list. So presumably, work has been completed at far more schools than the 215 we found on the project lists we have access to, or maybe many of those schools have closed or been merged.

Then again, we also found reports that one of schools where work was listed as completed in 2018, Mabila Primary School, still uses dilapidated pit toilets because the new sanitation facilities were in fact not built because a decision was made to merge the school with another one, Heath-e News reported in December 2020.

The problem is that it's far more difficult than it should be to understand which schools in Limpopo still have illegal pit toilets.

We asked the LDOE for details of the schools where facilities had been upgraded between 2019 and early 2021, but they did not provide them.

SECTION27 is calling for a more coherent, comprehensive and urgent plan to remove pit toilets in schools in the province so that children are not at risk of being injured or dying in unsafe toilets.


What happened to the schools SECTION27 surveyed in 2018?

In 2018 SECTION27 surveyed the sanitation facilities at 86 schools in Limpopo. Forty-one schools in the survey had illegal plain pit toilets.

The LDOE provided a detailed update of the sanitation situation at the 86 schools in May 2020 in which it said only 18 of the schools still had pit toilets that were still in use by learners, although the department also noted that a few more of the schools still had pit toilets but they weren't being used by the learners as toilets per se, but rather they were used for the disposal of sanitary waste, so they didn't count as inappropriate.

Allegraine Primary

Allegraine Primary, where the boys' pit toilets were so full they had to relieve themselves in bushes and the girls shared two pit toilets with the teachers, was earmarked to receive 10 new Enviro Loos and two Grade R toilets, the LDOE noted in 2020. The last known status of the project is 'under construction'. The school was on the list handed to the Sanitation Appropriate for Education (SAFE) Initiative launched by the Presidency in 2018, but on a spreadsheet we received from the LDOE in June 2021, Allegraine was listed as "not proceeding".

Bolotswi Secondary School

Bolotswi Secondary School, where the learners had completely stopped using the pit latrines by 2018 because they were "full and filthy", has been earmarked for closure. In 2019, the school was on a list to receive 14 "ordinary toilet seats'' as part of the Sanitation Appropriate For Education (SAFE) Initiative. But, in 2020, the LDOE said it intended to relocate the learners to nearby Seunane Secondary, which has "proper, state-of-the-art" facilities, so the sanitation project was delayed. The relocation has been met with resistance, said an LDOE spokesperson. Meanwhile, the school is still open and the sanitation problems remain.

Tshitandani and Dithamaga Primary Schools

Tshitandani Primary School, which also only had illegal pit latrines when surveyed in 2018, was also going to merge with another school, as was Dithamaga Primary School. The LDOE confirmed in May 2021 that both schools remain open. Tshitandani Primary was also one of the schools on the SAFE Initiative list.

Utjane Primary School

Utjane Primary School, one of the schools in SECTION27's survey that had only pit toilets but was not included on LDOE's 2018 lists, was allocated to the SAFE Initiative in 2019/2020 to receive new Enviro Loos and Grade R toilets, according to the LDOE. But, it would appear that the school will not receive its new toilets for at least two years because it is on a project list that shows work is scheduled to start in April 2023 with a completion date of March 2026.

The same applies to three other schools SECTION27 found had pit toilets. Work was scheduled to start on AM Mashego Primary's 36 new Enviro Loos in April 2021 as part of a project that has an end date of March 2024. Work on the toilet facilities of Loboli and Matsotsosela Primary Schools is only scheduled to start in April 2023.

Explore the interactive graphic below to see which updates have been listed for the schools in SECTION27's 2018 survey. The information has been obtained from court documents and the LDOE. It should be noted that just because a school appears on a list for an upgrade, doesn't mean the upgrade was actually completed.

Click on one of the grey buttons and hover over a block for more information.

Which schools have been upgraded?

These are the original schools SECTION27 visited. Each schools was classified as either:
Pit toilets or far too few toilets (primary schools)
Pit toilets or far too few toilets (secondary schools)
Too few toilets for the number of pupils
Close to compliance with norms and standards
Explore:
Show schools with pit toilets in 2018
Which schools were on a list to receive upgrades?
Which upgrades have been completed?
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When will pit toilets be eradicated?

The Sanitation Appropriate for Education (SAFE) Initiative, which was launched by the Presidency in 2018 to address sanitation challenges at schools after another five-year-old, Lumka Mkhetwa, died in a pit toilet at her school in the Eastern Cape, was initially given a list of 3,898 schools around the country that had only pit toilets, 507 of those schools were in Limpopo.

That original list has been whittled down to 2,803, after 969 schools were assessed and found to have adequate sanitation and another 126 schools were found to have been closed.

The SAFE Initiative was given a list of another 853 schools in Limpopo that had "proper sanitation" but still also had pit latrines that needed to be demolished.

In March 2020, just before the Covid-19 pandemic hit South Africa, spokesperson for the national Department of Basic Education Elijah Mhlanga told GroundUp that 266 schools around the country had been provided with proper sanitation in the first 18 months of the SAFE Initiative. It's not known how many of those schools are in Limpopo.

He said the plan was to eradicate inappropriate sanitation in all 3,898 schools by the end of the 2021/22 financial year. That means there were 3,632 to go.

Limpopo MEC for education Polly Boshielo appeared to be working to the same deadline.

In her 2019 budget speech she told Parliament: "The current backlog stands at 507 schools [in Limpopo]. Provisioning of sanitation has been prioritized at 174 schools at an estimated cost of R189 million in 2019/20 financial year and we planned to eradicate the backlog by 2021/22 financial year."

Later that year in a newsletter from her department, Boshielo said the LDOE planned to supply 207 of the 507 schools that had pit latrines with sanitation and the national Department of Basic Education would supply 300 schools, "so that there is no talk of pit latrines in the next financial year".

How close is the LDOE to reaching that deadline?

That's really hard to say. A list of 506 schools that are part of the SAFE Initiative obtained from the LDOE in June 2021 had a column named "Proceeding/Not Proceeding, 204 were labelled "proceeding"; 52 were "not proceeding" the rest were simply blank. There was no indication of whether any of the projects were finished.

The Department of Basic Education had to provide rented portable toilets to 453 Limpopo schools so they could open during the Covid-19 pandemic, Mhlanga told the Sunday World in August 2020.

The NEIMS report in August 2020 noted that 472 schools in Limpopo had pit toilets only, but by April 2021 that number had dropped to 219, a decrease of 253 schools in eight months.

It's hard to tell which schools had pit latrines only and which had "proper sanitation" as well as pit toilets. The LDOE doesn't make that distinction in the list of over 1,600 schools in the province that had pit toilets in 2018. But the NEIMS report for April 2021 lists 2,144 schools with both proper sanitation and pits.

So how many schools still have pit toilets? It's impossible to tell from publicly available data. And the various infrastructure plans that have been made available by the LDOE in the past three years suggest that many pit toilets in the province will only become a thing of the past after 2026, 10 years after the deadline.

Now there is the question of the impact of funding cuts to school infrastructure programmes that were passed in the 2020 Special Adjustments Budget, which was tabled to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, and the broader budgeting issues affecting the delivery of safe and appropriate sanitation at all public schools.


Funding the removal of pit toilets in Limpopo

Parliamentary Committees, the Auditor General, National Treasury and the High Court in Limpopo have all found the LDOE severely wanting when it comes to properly planning for, budgeting and spending the funds available for school infrastructure in the province.

The Education Infrastructure Grant and the School Infrastructure Backlogs Grant are the two largest funding mechanisms for school infrastructure.

The Education Infrastructure Grant (EIG) is allocated by the National Treasury to the Department of Basic Education, which is disbursed to the LDOE based on the province's school infrastructure needs and which must be spent on school infrastructure projects.

While the LDOE spent almost all of its final EIG allocation in the 2017/18 financial year, it underspent significantly on its budget the following two years.

In 2018/19, the LDOE returned R65.5 million of its EIG to the National Treasury as unspent funds, while in 2019/20, it failed to spend a vast R335 million of education infrastructure funds.


Covid and Budget Cuts

The coronavirus pandemic and lockdown necessitated the tabling of a special adjustments budget by the Minister of Finance in June 2020.

The adjusted budget took a total of R6.6 billion away from the EIG, making it the largest cut to any area of government expenditure in the budget.

Government targeted the EIG on the basis that infrastructure projects could not be completed due to the lockdown, and that, as a "non-frontline sector" in the fight against Covid-19, the education sector would have to "donate" funds to the departments of health, social development, the police and the SANDF.

The LDOE will have to rethink its school infrastructure projects over the next year, but based on its track record, it appears that Limpopo may still fall short on meeting its targets.

The LDOE has not met its targets to provide school sanitation for the last five years, as numbers from its annual reports show. In the five years between 2015 and 2020, 325 schools were provided with sanitation facilities by the provincial department, which is an average of 65 schools a year.


Rush for temporary solutions

With so little progress being made to address the pit toilet backlog, the national Department of Basic Education had to step in during the Covid-19 pandemic to provide temporary portable toilets.

For the teachers and learners at Mmakadikwe Primary School, it looks like proper sanitation is on the cards. The school's nine pit toilets will be replaced with Enviro Loos by August, according to community members. In the meantime, 354 learners will use four portable toilets provided by the department's contractors; while the teachers continue to use the pit toilets.

But Kharivha Primary has not been given any indication of when proper sanitation will be built, said a community member. It has plain pit toilets that the school built itself, and dilapidated, unsafe Enviro Loos that are over three decades old. The school also does not appear on any of the project lists provided by the LDOE.

Like so many other schools in the province, they will have to wait.

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Funding the removal of pit toilets in Limpopo

The Limpopo government is primarily responsible for the provision of adequate sanitation in all public schools under its jurisdiction, including the removal and replacement of unsafe and illegal pit latrines.

There are four funding vehicles for school infrastructure, namely:

• The Education Infrastructure Grant (EIG) is allocated by the National Treasury to the Department of Basic Education, which is disbursed to the Limpopo Department of Education (LDOE) based on the province's school infrastructure needs and which must be spent on school infrastructure projects.

• The School Infrastructure Backlogs Grant (SIBG) funds the Accelerated School Infrastructure Development Initiative (ASIDI). Funding is transferred to implementing agents which carry out school infrastructure projects on behalf of the LDOE.

• The equitable share allocation is a bulk transfer of funds annually from national to provincial governments to fund the core services provided by the provinces. Limpopo has not allocated any of its equitable share allocation towards school infrastructure for many years.

• The Sanitation Appropriate for Education (SAFE) initiative was created in 2018 to coordinate financial and in-kind donations to the national Department of Basic Education, provincial education departments and individual schools by private individuals or companies for school infrastructure upgrades, repairs, additions and new buildings.

The Education Infrastructure Grant and the School Infrastructure Backlogs Grant are the two largest funding mechanisms for school infrastructure.

The total EIG budget for Limpopo has increased overall since 2017/18, but it has fluctuated significantly from year to year.

While the LDOE spent almost all of its final EIG allocation in 2017/18, it underspent significantly on its budget the following two years.

In 2018/19, the department returned R65.5 million of its EIG to the National Treasury as unspent funds, while in 2019/20, it failed to spend a vast R335 million of education infrastructure funds.

The LDOE's reasons for its significant under-expenditure raise further questions.

For 2018/19, the department blamed its failure to spend EIG funds on "builders' holidays".

For the vast under expenditure of 2019/20, the department blamed its high vacancy rate and the resignation of "key employees", as well as the usual "delays by contractors".

Covid and Budget Cuts

Fortunately for the LDOE, the National Treasury approved a roll over of R474.9 million of previously unspent EIG funds for expenditure in the 2020/21 financial year, resulting in the department's EIG budget jumping to R1,294 million at the outset of that year.

However, the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown necessitated the tabling of a special adjustments budget by the Minister of Finance in June 2020.

The adjusted budget took a total of R6.6 billion away from the EIG, making it the largest cut to any area of government expenditure in the budget.

Government targeted the EIG on the basis that infrastructure projects could not be completed due to the lockdown, and that, as a "non-frontline sector" in the fight against Covid-19, the education sector would have to "donate" funds to the departments of health, social development, the police and the SANDF.

Of the R6.6 billion "suspended" from the EIG, R4.4 billion was earmarked for Covid-19 related measures, in and outside of the education sector, while R2.2 billion was simply cut from the EIG budget.

In Limpopo, only R25 million of the provincial EIG budget was repurposed for Covid-19 related expenditures, while R125 million was cut from the EIG funds available to the province. This reduced the 2020/21 financial year budget available to the department by almost ten percent (-9.9%).

The LDOE will have to rethink its school infrastructure projects over the next year, but based on its track record, it appears that Limpopo may still fall short on meeting its targets.

A history of poor planning

For three years, the LDOE missed out on an incentive for the education infrastructure grant because of poor infrastructure planning.

To receive the incentive component of the EIG, provincial education departments have to go through an infrastructure planning process with the Department of Basic Education and National Treasury in which minimum prerequisites are met and a composite "planning score" of at least 60% is achieved.

In 2017, the LDOE scored only 46%, which meant it missed out on the additional available funds.

A year later, in 2018, the LDOE was the only education department in the country to fail to meet the required standard to receive the funds.

By comparison, the Eastern Cape scored 78% and KwaZulu-Natal scored 80% in 2017.

The LDOE again failed to collect these funds – amounting to R188.1 million – in the following 2019/20 financial year. It scored less than 60% for the quality of its infrastructure improvement plan.

Finally, when the LDOE achieved a score above the 60% threshold in 2020/21, entitling it to receive the incentive – austerity measures meant the incentive component amounted to only R73 million.