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After 2 Children Drown In Pit Latrines, South Africans Wait For Government To Step In


We're going to hear now about a pledge by the South African government to improve school safety - specifically, to eradicate dangerous pit latrines. In the past five years, two 5-year-olds have drowned in these makeshift toilets. Reporter Krista Mahr reports on the government's efforts to get rid of them.

KRISTA MAHR, BYLINE: Every parent has thought about it. You send your happy, healthy kid to school one day, and they never come back. For James Komape, that day was January 20, 2014. He was walking home in Chebeng, a village in northern South Africa, when he got a call from the school principal that his 5-year-old Michael had been in an accident.

JAMES KOMAPE: (Through interpreter) The call was to tell us that Michael fell inside the toilet, and he was dead. When we got to the school, what saddened me was that I found my son was still inside the pit toilet. Education officials were there, but my son was still inside.

MAHR: It's hard to imagine something so awful happening even once, but thousands of schools across South Africa still use pit toilets. And, in March, it happened again when a 5-year-old girl fell into her school's toilet in Eastern Cape province and drowned. President Cyril Ramaphosa called for an emergency review of all schools with unsafe toilets. And, in August, he rolled out a plan to remove all pit latrines from South African schools within the next two years.


PRESIDENT CYRIL RAMAPHOSA: We hope to wipe out these abhorrible (ph) latrines from the face of our country. And it can be done, and it starts today. We will do it.

MAHR: According to its own rules, the government should've already done it. The education department has adopted standards that certain pit toilets are banned in public schools and gave itself until 2016 to adopt the measures, according to rights group Equal Education.


MAHR: Primary schools just a few miles away from where Michael died have been waiting for years for new toilets.

MADUMETJA KGANYAGO: So we did apply. But they said there are many schools who are looking for those toilets.

MAHR: Madumetja Kganyago (ph) has been teaching at Sebushi Primary School for more than 25 years. He's worried about his students' safety. The toilets are way out of earshot of the classrooms. If a student fell in and yelled for help, no one would hear. Kganyago points out where he's covered up holes over a toilet's pit with rusty metal sheeting.


KGANYAGO: Even learners - if they come this side, you are not sure whether the learner will be back or not. So it's dangerous.

MAHR: Morategi Teffo, a 9-year-old student, says the school toilets are so creepy that some students avoid using them, altogether.

MORATEGI TEFFO: I'm nervous of using the toilets. Sometimes, when I get in the toilet, I'm scared that - what if the snake bites me? Sometimes, other children are scared of getting in. They do whatever they do outside.

MAHR: Last month, the government raised more than $3 million in private donations to fast-track getting rid of pit toilets at schools across the country.


MAHR: But on a dusty street in Chebeng, Michael's parents and their six surviving children are struggling to move on.

ROSINA KOMAPE: (Through interpreter) Michael was a very, very clever boy. When his older brother was studying, he would go study with him. He was very unique and very clever.

MAHR: The family sued the government for damages, for emotional shock, grief and counseling costs. The government conceded liability and settled a small amount during the early trial, the family's lawyers say. But, at the end of the trial, the court dismissed most of the family's claims and granted the family just a small amount for counseling. Now, the Komapes are appealing. As for the promise to get rid of every pit toilet in South Africa, for Michael's mother, it's too little and way too late.

R. KOMAPE: (Through interpreter) The day Michael died, the government should have started building all-new toilets. When we hear about the other child that also fell in a pit toilet, it is very sad, indeed. It's painful for us all over again.

MAHR: For NPR News, I'm Krista Mahr and Chebeng, South Africa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Krista Mahr