Is South Africa a society that throws its children down the toilet?

pit latrines (2)

Is a toilet too much to ask? In numerous schools in South Africa, toilet facilities for the children are either missing or dangerous. It is a priority that has been neglected in the basic school system for decades, both under the ANC and previous governments. Accidents are inevitable. The picture shows a rudimentary pit toilet at a rural school.

THE horrendous death of a five year old schoolgirl, Lumka Mketwa, who fell into a pit latrine at an Eastern Cape school last week and drowned in human faeces, and whose body lay there overnight before being found, highlights a stark reality of South African society. This is the chasm between the high quality first-world bubble in which the South African elite – including middle class blacks, whites and most Jews – live, compared to the millions of desperately poor, who don’t even have a proper toilet. It is not the first such incident: In 2014, five year old schoolboy Michael Komape fell into a dilapidated pit latrine at his Limpopo school and died.

It will likely happen again. Thousands of children attend schools with filthy, dangerous toilets. A reliable report in January said 37 Eastern Cape schools had no toilets at all, 1945 had plain pit latrines and 2585 had ventilated pit latrines. How can children and their parents function with optimism under such circumstances?

Contrast this with white schools in the city – whether Christian, Jewish or other properly organised, comparable schools, where the absence of good toilets is unimaginable, let alone other essentials such as adequate school buildings, desks and so on.

Which of the two examples above adequately describes the country South Africa – the abysmal poverty of Lumka’s world, or the relative wealth of the Jewish or Catholic child’s world?

How would other countries answer a similar question? In an attempt to get a handle on this, a report released on March 14 compares the ‘happiness level’ of various countries, evaluated by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network for the United Nations. It takes data from 156 countries, ranking them in terms of six variables that support a person’s well-being. These are: income, freedom, trust, healthy life expectancy, social support and generosity.

It found that the top countries included Denmark, Switzerland, Norway and Finland. The most unhappy countries were Burundi, the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Tanzania and Yemen.

South Africa is not regarded as a particularly happy society. It ranks two thirds down the list, at 105. Obviously, within the SA elite’s first-world bubble which has access to health care, resources, community, charities and so on, the ranking would be far higher, probably closer to Germany. But the poverty of the masses brings it down. The pathetic beggars motorists encounter at city street lights are the tip of the iceberg.

How much credibility do such studies have? Mark Twain popularised a term in the United States: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Undoubtedly, some indicators cannot be precisely measured for a report like this, but it nevertheless gives a broad overview.

The notion of comparing different countries’ well-being came from the prime minister of Bhutan in 2011. In 2012 the UN General Assembly declared March 20 as World Happiness Day, recognising “the relevance of happiness and well-being as universal goals and aspirations… and the importance of their recognition in public policy objectives.” The idea may seem a little woolly to some, but it has taken root in government policy in certain places.

Israel was ranked a respectable eleventh in well-being, one notch below Australia, and firmly above Germany and the United States, at 15 and 18 respectively – an interesting finding, given Israel’s stress because of threats against it. Clearly, Israelis are relatively happy.

The Palestinian territories, in contrast, rank much lower than Israel, at 104, which should worry those concerned about relations between them.

Can South Africa’s ranking rise in the foreseeable future, so another Lumka Mketwa will not die? It is now 24 years since apartheid ended, and SA President Cyril Ramaphosa expressed shock at her death and ordered urgent action to give all schools proper toilets. But heads must roll in this country, quickly and totally, and not just about toilets.

(GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: )


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