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Have ‘hundreds’ of kids drowned in school pit latrines in South Africa?

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  • Global Citizen, which works to end extreme poverty in the world, said “hundreds” of children had drowned in school pit latrines in South Africa “over the past few years”.

  • Records show two five-year-old children have drowned in school latrines since 2014. Two more died when the walls of school toilets fell on them.

  • The government has audited the number of unsafe pit toilets in South Africa, but the audit’s results have been questioned.

Thousands of people gathered in South Africa’s Soweto township in December 2018 for the Global Citizen Festival, a celebration of the hundred years since Nelson Mandela’s birth.

This tweet has since been deleted by Global Citizen.

The festival was a project of Global Citizen, an organisation working to end extreme poverty. The event highlighted the important issues of sanitation and health.

In an article on its website, Global Citizen says that “over the past few years, hundreds of children have drowned in pit latrines” referring to schools. The claim was tweeted on 18 January 2019.

Tragic stories of young children falling into pit latrines and drowning in excrement have made headlines in South Africa. But do the horrifying deaths number in the hundreds?

No response from festival planners

Africa Check contacted Global Citizen to ask where they got their information and what period “the past few years” referred to.  We are yet to receive a response. (Note: We will update this report if we do.)

We also asked the department of basic education for any official list of schoolchildren who have drowned in pit latrines. They have not yet provided it.

Two known deaths since 2013

“There are no known publicly available records of the exact number of children that have drowned in pit latrines over a specified period,” Sibabalwe Gcilitshana, parliamentary officer and researcher with advocacy organisation Equal Education, told Africa Check.

But, Gcilitshana said, “the known and reported incidents of learners drowning in pit latrines is unlikely to amount to 100”.

Civil society organisation Section 27 has done extensive research on sanitation in South Africa, focusing on Limpopo province.

Head of communications Ntsiki Mpulo told Africa Check that Section 27 knew of two deaths from drowning in pit latrines.

In January 2014, five-year-old Michael Komape drowned in a pit toilet at Mahlodumela Primary School in Limpopo. Five-year-old Lumka Mkhethwa drowned in a pit latrine at Luna Primary School in the Eastern Cape province in March 2018.

Three more children have died or been injured in unsafe school toilets, Section 27’s records show.

  • Seven-year-old Lister Magongwa died in 2013 after the walls of a toilet collapsed on him at Mmushi Primary School in Limpopo.

  • Five-year-old Oratilwe Dilwane fell into a pit latrine in 2016 at Tlhotlheletsang Primary School in North West province. He swallowed excrement and was severely injured.

  • Six-year-old Siyamthanda Mtunu died in 2017 after the walls of a toilet collapsed on him at Dalasile Primary School in the Eastern Cape.

How many South African schools have pit latrines?

From May to July 2018, Section 27 conducted a survey of 86 schools in Limpopo. It found that 41 – nearly half the schools – had unlawful pit latrines.

Samantha Brener, Section 27’s attorney, told Africa Check that pit latrines were unlawful in terms of the norms and standards for school infrastructure. In some cases ventilated improved pit toilets are allowed.

A national government audit of schools in May and June 2018 found that at 3,898 schools the only toilets available were pit latrines. Another 3,040 had “proper sanitation”, but pit toilets were still on the premises.

Number of schools with pit latrines in South Africa
ProvinceSchools with only pit latrinesSchools with proper sanitation but pits remain
Eastern Cape1,598323
Free State15642
KwaZulu Natal1,3651,477
North West14547
Northern Cape015
Western Cape00

Source: South African government sanitation audit (May and June 2018)

Section 27 raised concerns about the accuracy of the number of schools with pit latrines in a 2018 letter to President Cyril Ramaphosa.

Conclusion: Available records show four have died in pit latrines at South African schools.

Reports of children dying in South African school toilets have made horrifying headlines in recent years.

Global Citizen, an organisation working to end poverty, claimed “hundreds of children” had drowned in pit latrines “over the past few years”.

Available records show two children, both 5, have drowned in pit latrines on school properties in recent years: Michael Komape in 2014, and Lumka Mkhethwa in 2018.

Two more children died when the walls of unsafe school toilets collapsed on them while one more was severely injured after falling into a pit latrine in 2016.

Accurate information is needed in efforts to make sure such tragedies never happen again.

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