Feizel Mamdoo, Cyril Ramaphosa Foundation’s Communications Executive, sat down with Arnold Maluleke, a Programme Manager of its partner entity, Adopt-a-School Foundation, for an insight into his work eradicating pit toilets.

As a youth, Arnold Maluleke dug pit toilets in the village he hails from, Bungeni, in northern Limpopo. Today he has made it his mission to destroy them, and oversees the construction of safe and decent ablution facilities at schools around the country.

Maluleke, 40, is the Programme Manager for the infrastructure delivery programme of Adopt-a-School, a Cyril Ramaphosa Foundation partner entity that implements a holistic Whole School Development programme to develop basic education.

Pit toilets are “a matter of life and death’’ Maluleke says. ‘’There’s no two-ways about it.“

He explains that a pit toilet ‘’is basically a seat and a hole underneath’’. It is dug physically, about two metres deep, and with a width of one or two metres depending on the number of pits that are wanted.

‘’It’s just a hole,’’ Maluleke stresses, ‘’that’s not coated with any brickwork or concrete’’.

A covering, like a slab of concrete, is placed above and around a drop hole, as is ‘’some type of seating facility, shaped like a pan’’. A shack or brick and mortar structure is then constructed around the pit.

The facility has a life span, Maluleke elaborates.

‘’When it fills up, they would demolish it and go and find another area and do the same thing again and dig another one.’’

‘’The problem,’’ Maluleke says, ‘’is that the size of these holes may be big enough to accommodate adults, but it’s too big for kids.’’

He graphically describes the experience children have using these latrines.

‘’It really is something that breaks your heart. How small these kids are, and how they have to sit holding on to the sides, because the waste bin is too big.’’

Adults too may fall into pit latrines.

‘’Over years it starts deteriorating and some of them actually sink in while somebody is using it,’’ Maluleke says. If the pit latrine is unstable because of soil conditions, it may sink in even if recently dug.

This risk is not the only one associated with pit latrines. Maluleke says they are an environmental challenge ‘’because the waste is not separated from the earth’’, and they are also a health risk because there is no ventilation system, it is germ infested, and there are no water facilities. Pathogens transferred between faeces and food by flies are major causes of infectious diarrhea and intestinal worm infections.

Adopt-a-School has been installing and building sanitation facilities at disadvantaged schools for more than 20 years, particularly in rural schools that do not have access to running water or are not connected to a municipal sewerage line. To date it has constructed and installed 70 ablution facilities. The projects are implemented with the support of private sector donors and include the provision of water or waterless Ventilated Improved Pit (VIP) latrines or Enviro Loos, and the refurbishment or construction of full-on ablution facilities. Adopted schools that have pit toilets, dilapidated or vandalised toilets, or insufficient ablution facilities for the size of the school, are prioritised. Adopt-a-School is currently also exploring innovative designs that are environmentally friendly and water efficient.

‘’Before we construct an ablution facility, we identify the type of facility that will be built,’’ Maluleke explains. The type of facility is determined by the services that are available, such as municipal water or adequate borehole water.

‘’Most of the schools we work in don’t have water,’’ Maluleke says, ‘’so we then go for a waterless system, which is a VIP or an Enviro Loo.”

A VIP or Enviro Loo involves a piping system to a septic tank that is a few metres away from where the facility is used. When the tank fills up, after about three years, a waste truck drains the waste.

‘’These facilities are safe, protective of health, and decent,” Maluleke says.

Asked if any challenges are encountered in the construction of these facilities, Maluleke says: “There’s always challenges in construction, always.’’

‘’Sometimes the soil conditions are not suitable. Sometimes where we want to excavate, we find a lot of holes from previous pit latrines and have to keep shifting the position of the facility we want to construct.

‘’But,’’ he says ‘’in construction, where there’s a will, there’s a way’’.

Maluleke makes sure that the solutions found to problems are legal and to standard.

Adopt-a-School’s community-based infrastructure model involves the parents of learners as skilled and unskilled labour, and accredited service providers and small businesses from the community. To date some 2 348 SMMEs have been contracted and over 1 500 temporary jobs created in the construction of ablution and kitchen facilities, classrooms, libraries, and media and science labs among other school facilities. However, this commitment to employ local labour and services may also present a challenge if they are not available, Maluleke says.

Another challenge he encounters is resistance to the destruction of pit toilets once the new facilities are ready.

“We have a school now that we’re busy negotiating with,’’ Maluleke illustrates. “These schools are used to using the pit toilets,’’ he offers, ‘’and communities are also unaware of preferable alternatives’’.

‘’The sheer volume of the students that need to be catered for, they feel, should not justify them demolishing the pit toilets. They want them for the added convenience.’’

Adopt-a-School constructs a school’s facilities according to the need identified, of both learners and teachers, but enrolment growth every year adds to the demand on existing facilities.

”In some schools I know, the enrolment almost doubles,’’ Maluleke says. ‘’So we are in an endless cycle of trying to get and keep the schools to a decent standard.’’

The ideal ratio of a toilet to learners is a minimum of 1:25 and a maximum of 1:30, in line with the Department of Basic Education’s Norms and Standards. Many schools though have over 50 learners sharing a single toilet.

Maluleke says new ablution facilities may also not be looked after.

‘We upgraded ablution facilities in four primary schools in Mpumalanga. We stripped away all the urinals; took away the wash basins that were broken and replaced them; we fitted new doors; we changed the ceilings, closed all the leaks; we put in new piping systems; we put in a pump to improve the water pressure … whatever to make the toilets decent and usable.

‘’When we went back after about a month to check if there were any defects that needed fixing, we found the most horrific vandalism had taken place. Mindless destruction as well as theft.”

Maluleke is convinced this is because of weaknesses in school leadership and underscores that infrastructure development is not just about bricks and mortar. Where Adopt-a-School has implemented its school leadership development programme, the neglect of facilities has been seen to be obviated.

‘’At the end of the day, pit latrines have to be eradicated,’’ Maluleke concludes.

The dance, ululation and tears of joy by community members when safe, clean and dignified facilities are handed over is reaffirming and deeply fulfilling for him.