How South Africa’s ‘pit toilets’ became a damning symbol of the nation’s inequality

Poor housing settlement outside Bloemfontein
Pit toilets are 'a huge depiction of inequality in South Africa', according to Amnesty International - Simon Townsley/The Telegraph

Michael Komape’s mother slung her other child on her back and rushed to the primary school as soon as staff called. Her son had gone missing, teachers said.

The five-year-old was nowhere to be found, until a little schoolmate made an unexpected remark.

Michael had fallen in the toilet, the little boy said. Searching where the boy indicated, the teachers saw Michael’s dead hand visible in the pit of human waste beneath the dilapidated toilets.

“I then said that my child died asking for help,” Michael’s mother told a trial for damages three years later.

The 2014 death of Michael Komape in a school pit toilet near Polokwane, in Limpopo province, shocked South Africa.

Michael Komape, who died in a school pit toilet near Polokwane, in Limpopo province
The 2014 death of Michael Komape shocked South Africa - Family handout

The fact that more than two decades after the end of apartheid thousands of schools still had such dangerous toilets became another symbol of inequality in a country awash with disparity.

Consisting of a toilet seat perched above a hole in the ground, some pit toilets are well built and comply with new standards, but many do not and are dangerous and unsanitary.

South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) party pledged to replace the worst of them by 2016.

Instead, a decade after Michael’s death and with the target date long passed, more than 3,932 schools – or 17 per cent – still have unacceptable pit toilets, according to human rights campaign groups who track the issue.

Some of those schools have a mixture of acceptable and unacceptable toilets, but 728 schools have nothing but those that should have been banned and replaced.

Michael Komape died in this pit latrine at Mahlodumela Lower Primary School
Michael Komape died in this pit latrine at his primary school - GALLO

Such toilets are often ramshackle efforts made by the local community. They are filthy, unsafe and the youngest children risk falling in. They can be so bad that children prefer to leave the school and relieve themselves outside in woodland or bush.

“There’s a risk to life, but these toilets are also often in a disgusting state,” says Motheo Brodie, a candidate attorney with the Section 27 campaign group.

“They are completely unhygienic and a threat to the health of learners. In some instances, these toilets are so dilapidated that there are no doors on them.”

The existence of such toilets in schools in poor townships and rural areas is a potent example of not only inequality, but the government’s failure to tackle it.

South Africa is the most unequal country in the world according to rankings of a statistical measure called the gini coefficient, which assesses how income is spread across a population.

Michael Komape's parents
Michael Komape's parents

The haves have a lot, the middle class is relatively small, and the have-nots have very little. Around 18 million people in South Africa subsist on less than £1.50 per day. Unemployment is nudging 30 per cent.

Campaigners say the problem is shaped by the country’s history, but has not been helped by the current government.

The most deprived areas in 2024 were also deprived under apartheid.

But the ANC is also to blame. In its 30 years in power, the party has been accused of failing to make changes; held back by its own lack of will, its mismanagement and corruption.

As voters head to the polls in May to elect the government, the ANC’s failure to ease such inequality and deliver even basic services will be high in the minds of many poor voters.

In 2019 the World Bank determined that South Africa is the most unequal country in the world, and little has changed. Pics of poor housing outside Bloemfontein.
In 2019 the World Bank determined that South Africa is the most unequal country in the world - Simon Townsley/The Telegraph

“It’s a huge depiction of inequality in South Africa to still have pit toilets,” says Cassandra Dorasamy of Amnesty International.

“It’s hard not to say that it’s a lack of political will on the part of the government, and at the same time acknowledge that these problems have deep roots in the inherited system of apartheid.

“But if you look at how budgets are being cut, or underspent, there are post-apartheid delays seen in delivering.”

Mr Brodie said the central government had made money available for replacing dangerous pit toilets, but local government dysfunction meant it was not spent.

He said: “They’ve had 30 years and there’s definitely more that could have been done.

“Education is one of the highest-funded sectors in the country. Money has been allocated for the eradication of pit toilets, yet we see underspending by departments of education. One can’t even squarely blame the lack of resources to have had more progress.

“It’s really a lack of political will, given that this is an issue which has been so topical for so long.”

Mourners pay tribute to Michael Komape
Limpopo province, where Michael Komape died, has pledged to remove pit toilets - GALLO

Litigation by Section 27, a Johannesburg-based, public interest law centre, has compelled Limpopo province, where Michael Komape died, to set targets to remove pit toilets. The province has cut the number of schools using unacceptable toilets, but last year missed another deadline for their total removal.

Other provinces are moving more slowly to remove them.

President Cyril Ramaphosa has in the past month been hailing ANC achievements in the past 30 years, ahead of polling on May 29.

Political commentators widely predict he has an uphill struggle ahead of him as the country faces its most pivotal election in three decades.

Disillusionment with the ANC, with rolling power cuts, crumbling infrastructure, an anaemic economy, the lack of services, and continuing corruption is expected to see the party lose an absolute majority for the first time since it was voted in.

If the party fails to take 50 per cent of the vote, its three-decade period of absolute dominance will end and usher in a new uncertain era of coalition politics.

Persuading poor voters that the ANC has worked in their interests and delivered improvements over the past 30 years will be key to the party’s electoral strategy.

Yet the spectacle of the country’s school pit toilets is just one example where they have fallen short.

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