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ANALYSIS: When school infrastructure data fails

South Africa has 23,589 ordinary schools. But there are effectively two different public school systems, as education researcher Nic Spaull repeatedly points out.

One accommodates the wealthiest 20-25% of pupils and the other caters for the poorest 75-80%. The state of school sanitation for the majority of South African pupils is one such example of this gross inequality.

Since 2012, SECTION27 has been lobbying the department of basic education on issues to do with sanitation in Limpopo. In the past few months, we have grown our data capturing in the small percentage of schools we have access to in the province.

However, from our work in these schools and our analysis of departmental documents, we found that no one can make factual proclamations about the state of school infrastructure.

For example, it cannot be said with 100% certainty that none of the country’s schools have bucket toilets, as the department’s only available national database on school infrastructure shows. (Note: Read Africa Check’s report on the use of bucket toilets in Gauteng schools.)

4,110 or 3,831 schools?

The first issue is that the Limpopo department of education likely does not know exactly how many pupils it is responsible for, and for how many schools, and can only estimate these very critical numbers when they plan for toilets.  

At the beginning of June 2015, the department released a plan for managing all the public ordinary schools that it is responsible for. In providing context to the plan, the department stated that it is responsible for 4,110 public ordinary schools.

Later that year, in October, it released its Infrastructure Norms and Standards Implementation Plan 2015 (a year after it was due to be published). This document contradicted the June 2015 plan - and itself - by including three different estimates for the number of schools in the province: 4,079, 4,061 and 4,090.

Meanwhile, the national database on school infrastructure for 2014 – released in May 2015 – makes reference to 3,831 ordinary public schools in Limpopo.

Which data is to be believed?

Data collection in rural areas challenging

Then there is the actual school infrastructure which complicates matters. For 70% (2,863) of the 4,090 schools included in the Infrastructure Norms and Standards Implementation Plan, the provincial department listed “to be confirmed” under access to sanitation.

This means that either these schools have not been visited and so the data does not exist, or that the department does not yet have a concrete plan for these schools.

In March last year at a stakeholders meeting, the Limpopo department undertook that a full infrastructure audit by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research would be complete by July 2015. The audit results remain outstanding and have clearly not been used in the development of the norms and standards implementation plan.

To be sure, data collection in rural areas has always been challenging. The distances between schools and surrounding homes is vast and some of these schools are not easily found on a map. Often reaching schools is difficult or impossible due to poor roads and flooding rivers.

But there are numerous grassroots activists, such as the members of the education advocacy group Basic Education for All in Limpopo, who are working hard to ensure that organisations like ours receive and can work with accurate data. They spend weeks on end visiting schools in each of Limpopo’s five districts, collecting information based on what they see first hand.

Since the start of 2016, SECTION27 and Basic Education for All have begun using a monitoring application and hotline number, where pupils, parents and community members can report the state of school infrastructure and textbook delivery.

We intend to give the data we collect to the provincial and national department, in the hope of working alongside with them to improve education provision in Limpopo.  

5-year-old pupil drowns in a pit toilet

By its own admission, the provincial department says that many of the Limpopo’s schools are not connected to waterborne municipal systems because they are located in rural areas.

Out of necessity, a number of schools are having to make do with “pit and bucket latrines”. According to the National Minimum Norms and Standards for Public School Infrastructure, released in November 2013, these toilets are not allowed.

The national minimum norms and standard sets out different deadlines over 15 years. The first is for the end of 2016 and requires that schools built entirely from mud, asbestos, metal and wood must be prioritised to meet these new standards. It also requires that schools which do not have access to any form of power supply, water supply or sanitation must be repaired or replaced to meet the required standards by the end of 2016.

The Limpopo department of education produced two sanitation plans in March and May of 2015 including over 500 priority schools. Despite numerous requests, it has never been revealed what criteria were used in deciding which schools would make the list. SECTION27 was also ignored when suggesting deserving schools that had been excluded.

While all of this was happening, 5-year-old Michael Komape, of Chebeng village outside Polokwane, drowned in a pit toilet at school. His school, Mahlodumela Lower Primary, was not on the list, so had not been identified by the department as a priority school.

Consequences of inaccurate data

For organisations such as SECTION27, which consistently work in the field of school sanitation in the Limpopo province, we often have to rely on the national and provincial departments for data.

We assume this to be accurate, so when discover that a provincial department is missing a lot of information – on sanitation – it proves highly problematic for our work, not least for that of the department’s. How can they possibly do their jobs without it?

If data is not accurate and there is no consequent action, in the worst case a pupil such as Michael Komape dies.

With municipal elections taking place later this year in South Africa, we need accurate, publicly accessible data in order to hold the right people and structures accountable. Now more than ever.

Roxanne Joseph is a multimedia journalist and writer with SECTION27, a human rights law centre that works primarily in access to healthcare and the right to basic education.


Questions were sent to the Limpopo department of basic education regarding the discrepancies in school numbers raises in this piece. They responded saying that as of 1 April 2016 there were 4,062 public and private schools in the province.Director of communication services for the department, Naledzani Rasila, told Africa Check that "we do not expect any inconsistencies in terms of the numbers". He did not, however, offer an explanation for the differing numbers.


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