The death of five-year-old Lumka Mketwa in a pit latrine at her school in the Eastern Cape earlier this month is already disappearing from news columns. After a time Lumka will be in the news again when one of the watchdog organisations demanding better facilities in schools, or a public-interest law firm, brings a case to court seeking compensatory damages for her family.
A civil claim was indeed launched in the High Court in Polokwane in November last year following the death of six-year-old Michael Komape four years ago in Limpopo. He too disappeared down a pit latrine. The defendants in that action are the minister of basic education, the MEC for education in Limpopo, and the principal and governing body of the school where Michael drowned.
Coincidentally, a non-governmental organisation, Equal Education, had already launched an application in the High Court in Bhisho in the Eastern Cape to compel the minister to provide the school facilities required by the Constitution.
President Cyril Ramaphosa has ordered his minister, Angie Motshekga, to conduct an audit of all schools with unsafe structures, including unsafe lavatories, and to present a plan to rectify the problems. Ms Motshekga will accordingly convene an urgent meeting with provincial MECs to draw up an emergency plan. According to her department, it has "always" been her view that safe and decent sanitation facilities are fundamental to the dignity and human rights of pupils and teachers. Equal Education has dismissed her statements of concern as "crocodile tears".
Quite why Mr Ramaphosa needs an audit from his minister is not clear. Her department regularly publishes figures on school facilities. In 2016, according to that year's audit, 9 203 of South Africa's 23 577 public schools had pit latrines. That works out at 39%, although some of these schools also had other lavatories. The number of schools with pit latrines only was 4 986, which works out at 21% of the total.
Yet a government unwilling or unable to provide enough money for safe and healthy lavatories at every school in the country somehow manages to find billions to bail out South African Airways and other entities. Its deployees in national and provincial government were able to devote R45 billion to "irregular expenditure" in 2016-2017 alone. And scores of billions can be found for a new development bank, the so-called "Brics bank".
The problem, however, is not only misallocation of resources. It goes deeper. One aspect is the view that grandiose projects such as the Brics bank are more important than such mundane things as school lavatories. The supposed prestige of owning an airline is another example of warped priorities. Yet another example of how national priorities have become corrupted is that the African National Congress (ANC) government is far more outraged by the remarks of a Penny Sparrow than it is by children who drown in lavatories.
But there is another dimension – the indifference that characterises the attitude of the government. Dirty public hospitals, brutal treatment of mental health patients, high crime rates, disintegrating sewerage systems, dreadful teaching in many schools, habitual squandering of resources extracted from every South African in one or another form of tax, and persistently high unemployment are just some of the manifestations. Nobody is held accountable for any of this.
Yet the ANC proclaims its commitment to running a "developmental state". To this end it takes unto itself more and more power and hires more and more people. We have a bloated Cabinet and umpteen deputy ministers – 74 functionaries in all. We have increased employment in the broad government sector from 1.57 million in 1995 to 2.04 million last year. We have pushed up government spending from 26% of GDP when the ANC took over to more than 33%. We have enacted increasingly punitive "black economic empowerment" laws. We boast about a constitution which purports to guarantee a host of social and economic "rights".
Despite all this we cannot provide all schoolchildren with safe lavatories at their schools. Tragically, the ANC is so successful with identity politics that it pays no electoral price for its callous indifference.
* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom.