Raising a stink about rural school toilets

By Fiona Ingham.

Michael Komape drowned in excrement in a pit latrine in his school in Limpopo in 2014, just days after he started school.

The six-year-old boy’s death highlighted the filthy state of many rural school toilets and the need for decent infrastructure. The reasons for the shocking state of rural toilets and infrastructure are complex, with the finger usually being pointed at service delivery, but this is only part of the problem. School sanitation plays a central, but overlooked, role in learning, according to Bobbie Louton, lead researcher of a report by Partners in Development. “Schools exist to meet the needs of children. They have no other reason to exist.”

The report entitled Exploring issues around rural on-site school sanitation in South Africa was published in 2015 for the Water Research Commission. A total of 130 schools in KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo and Eastern Cape were visited.  

“Learners’ toilets easily become the ‘Cinderella’ of school infrastructure: smelly, dirty and broken,” says Louton. “They are often built far from the admin block for this reason, so they can easily be put out of sight by staff who are overwhelmed by many other challenges.” 

‘Invisible’ problem

The problems users face in the toilets are made even more ‘invisible’ by the fact that going to the toilet happens out of view of staff, she points out. “Failed sanitation violates learners’ rights and also influences the right to education. When toilets violate their rights to safety, health and dignity; learners’ physical and psychological well-being is compromised and learning is undermined. Learners have no power to opt out of a school environment where toilets violate their rights to dignity.

“Some pupils try not to use the toilet for the entire school day. Others leave school to go home and will not return, removing themselves from learning altogether. Menstruating girls may opt to stay home for one week every month. Others will go to ‘the bush’, missing valuable time in the classroom. Young children who are afraid of falling into the school toilet may feel they have no option but to defecate on the toilet floor or outside in the open,” Louton said.

“We have around 25 000 schools nationally and 24 000 of these are public schools,” executive manager of the Water Research Commission, or WRC, Jay Bhagwan told a seminar on rural school sanitation this year. “Of these, 2 402 have no water supply and a further 2 611 have no reliable water supply. Of these, 913 have no toilets and about 11 000 are using unimproved pit latrines.” The WRC publication shows that pupil-to-toilet ratios ranged from one toilet to seven pupils, to a staggering one toilet to 208 pupils.

New infrastructure is not enough 

Fingers are often pointed at the fact that service delivery has not caught up with apartheid era backlogs, and those backlogs do still exist. And it is true that the schools where safety and dignity are at risk still reflect the demographic inequalities of apartheid. But providing infrastructure alone will not resolve the crisis. This is shown by the many instances in which new infrastructure has become unusable within months of having been built, explains Louton.

“It is important to distinguish between unimproved pit latrines — which the Department of Basic Education, or DBE, is seeking to eradicate — and VIPs (ventilated improved pit latrines), which is the DBE’s most popular solution to unimproved pit latrines. Where schools have VIPs, the DBE considers the ‘safe and appropriate sanitation’’ box ticked.

“One of our most important findings was that these toilets pose a real threat to life, which users are extremely aware of because of the ‘user-over-pit’ design. If a toilet collapses under a user, or a small child falls through the seat into the toilet, there is a very real possibility of drowning in the sludge,” Louton says.

Key statistics from the study


  • 76% of principals said pupils have to clean toilets
  • 41% of schools employed a cleaner
  • 62% of principals said that the circuit manager never inspects toilets
  • 59% of principals said that their school toilets violate their learners’ rights to health and safety
  • 64% of principals believed that their pupils are not safe in the school toilets
  • 18% of pupils said they do not use the school toilets; 71% of these said it is because they are dirty and you could get diseases; 19% said the toilet could break and they could fall in
  • 71% of pupils described their toilets as smelling bad
  • 63% as dirty
  • 36% as broken
  • 31% as dangerous
  • 21% as scary
  • 50% of pupils said that they had felt afraid of falling into the toilet
  • 40% of pupils said that they don’t believe the principal cares about the toilets


Source: Draft final report: Exploring the issues around rural on-site school sanitation in South Africa. April 2016, by Bobbie Louton and David Still, Partners in Development.

Lack of education

Some schools had no plan for toilet cleaning, whereas at other schools the toilets are cleaned twice a day. Some cleaners used the same mops on toilet floors and kitchens. Many didn’t understand the importance of frequently cleaning taps, toilets and door handles in toilet blocks. User behaviour is also part of the problem: pupils urinating and defecating on the floor was a recurring problem, although research suggests sometimes pupils feel they have nowhere else to do this safely.

Bhagwan said basics such as a lack of money for toilet paper, cleaning materials and operations were realities. “Poor management led to the failure of pour flush toilets that were piloted at two Limpopo high schools,” he said. “Another problem is the lack of ownership as shown by an unwillingness to buy toilet paper, failure to keep the toilets clean, and to ensure water was always available inside the toilets.” Other issues concerned not having local plumbers and parts for broken toilets, and lack of planning for emptying and disposal when leach pits became full.


The main finding of the WRC research shows that service delivery is only half of the story – management is the other half. The DBE considers delivery to be its responsibility, but management the responsibility of the school. However, many schools simply lack the knowledge, skills, tools, funds and will to manage sanitation to a standard that protects the rights of learners.

Louton told Plumbing Africa:“Although many schools need new infrastructure desperately, without management, both old and new infrastructure are doomed to fail.”

Different technologies need to be investigated for school toilets. The cost of full flushing toilets is often not possible for rural settings. Other low-cost options need to be implemented that are clean and safe. Funds need to be ring-fenced for management. Officials, planners, managers, principals, teachers, maintenance and cleaning staff, school governing bodies and pupils all need to share a vision for a solution.

“The challenge is a moving target,” director of physical resources planning at the Department of Basic Education, Solly Mafoko, said at the seminar. “As fast as the state provides infrastructure, so schools previously enjoying new facilities return to the backlog queue, due to poor operation and maintenance systems.”

He agreed that an increased focus needs to be placed on maintenance. Mafoko said operations and maintenance have to receive greater attention in both planning and budgeting for sanitation infrastructure delivery. “We have embarked on training programmes for school principals and school governing bodies on operation and maintenance of toilets. Health and hygiene are also to receive greater attention,” he said.

Louton says many solutions are contained in the study, and sums up by saying that three elements, being infrastructure, management and education together are vital to expect any intervention and any real change in the status quo.

Summarised findings of the study


  1. Many pit toilets, unimproved or improved, pose a threat to learners’ lives
  2. The health of pupils is at risk in many school toilets
  3. Vulnerable groups are particularly at risk
  4. Principals lack the capacity to manage school toilets effectively and the DBE fails to play a role

Source: Draft final report: Exploring the issues around rural on-site school sanitation in South Africa.

April 2016, by Bobbie Louton and David Still, Partners in Development.


The DBE needs to prioritise finding other technologies that do not place a user over a deep pit. Young children should be accompanied by teachers if they have to use pit toilets.

The DBE needs to provide training materials for cleaners and standards for cleaning toilets, and provide cleaning supplies, protective gear and hygiene materials. Funds should be allocated for a full-time cleaner dedicated to toilets.

Small pupils face a greater threat using unsafe infrastructure and encounter being bullied by older pupils when they are alone in toilets that are not monitored or maintained.

The DBE needs to commit to not only delivering sanitation, but to see sanitation through over the long term, or pupils’ rights will continue to be violated. This means training principals; developing the health and safety knowledge of principals; providing management models and tools for inspections; monitoring health and safety threats; providing adequate funds to ensure schools can hire a cleaner; providing safety, cleaning and hygiene materials; carrying out minor repairs; and monitoring and enforcing schools’ management of the toilets with regular inspections and guidance by circuit managers.


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