‘Stop all the pit latrine deaths’

2015-07-05 15:00

He was found in a pool of human excrement in January last year, his body infested with maggots and froth coming out of his mouth.

This was the gruesome picture painted in court papers by public interest law centre Section 27 to describe the death of six-year-old Michael Komape, who drowned in a pit latrine at his primary school in Chebeng village, Limpopo.

Section 27 is now assisting his parents to sue the Limpopo education department for R3 million because of alleged rights violations that led to the drowning.

All the boy wanted to do was use the toilet at his school, Mahlodumela Lower Primary, in Limpopo, last year in January. But what passed for a toilet at the school was merely a dilapidated corrugated iron structure with a loose seat that could not sustain little Michael’s body weight.

He drowned in human excrement and, according to papers filed late last month at the South Gauteng High Court by Section 27, Michael died as a result of inhaling excrement, urine and other putrid substances.

The papers read: “The body was infested with maggots ... bloody froth was coming from the mouth ... there was severe oedema [build-up of fluid] in the brain and the lungs were enlarged.”

According to Michael’s mother, Rosina Komape, the school principal called her, asking her where the little boy was because he had not come back after breaktime.

“We searched everywhere, asking people on the street, and the teachers also helped to look ... only to find out later that the whole time they knew that my son had drowned in the toilet,” she said.

A family friend, Charles Malabana, who was at the school before the little body was found, said Rosina “simply collapsed when she saw Michael’s hand reaching out from the sewage dammed in the pit latrine”.

The family had not been the same since, he added.

“Rosina has found it very hard to cope with this. She was deeply traumatised to see her son in that smelly place. It’s been really painful for all of us,” he said.

Rosina does not want to relive the day she found her son’s lifeless body and prefers to speak about the case against the provincial government.

“I am thankful to Section 27 for their help and hope that this will help and that no other child will die like that,” she said.

Faranaaz Veriava, a senior researcher at Section 27, said this was quite an unusual case, as it was the first time constitutional damages were being requested for negligence, pain and suffering.

“The kinds of damages we are asking for here are related to the rights violation that has occurred to the family, and we are asking for a whole lot of monetary damages too.

“It’s such an awful story,” added Veriava.

The papers state that the defendants – including Limpopo education, the principal and the school governing body – knew or ought to have known that the toilet Michael fell into was unsafe, unsecured and unfit for human use, particularly by young pupils.

“At the time of the death of the late Michael, the third defendant [the school] and teachers at Mohlodumela exercised care and control of the late Michael and were in loco parentis ... they owed a duty of care to the late Michael,” read the papers.

Veriava said they wanted an acknowledgment of the constitutional violations that had occurred and the egregious nature in which Michael died.

“He died in conditions where the toilets in schools in Limpopo are appalling, and we will have to assess to what extent there have been undertakings made in relation to the overall improvement of the sanitation conditions in Limpopo,” she said.

Veriava added that this case was not only brought on behalf of the family, but for all pupils in Limpopo.

Michael’s father, James Komape, said he wanted his son’s memory to live on.

“He was such a beautiful child, who loved to sing – especially the little poems he learnt at school. He was so intelligent and would pick up anything so quickly,” said the father.

To ensure that his son leaves a legacy, James has registered an NGO so that he can build a library in his village, which he plans to name after his son.

The department said it had not yet received the court papers.

The department of education has finally released the provincial implementation plans for norms and standards for infrastructure for Limpopo after numerous protests from rights groups.

Section 27’s Faranaaz Veriava told City Press they had a number of concerns about the plan.

“One thing is that the department has given itself a three-year plan for the eradication of pit latrines.

“What they are saying is that they have extended the deadlines from 2016, and now it will be 2019. They are giving themselves another three years, yet this is a situation of urgency. This is not the only school with toilets like these. The department is failing the learners like Michael,” she said.

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May 19 2019