President Cyril Ramaphosa conceded on Tuesday that not enough has been done to rid schools of pit toilets. Government was not moving fast enough, he said.
Speaking at the launch of the Sanitation Appropriate for Education (SAFE) initiative in Tshwane on Tuesday, Ramaphosa said the pleas of South Africans had been heard. This after two children drowned after falling into pit latrines in recent years.
"The utterly tragic and devastating deaths of children so young and so innocent remind us of the human consequences of service delivery delayed," said Ramaphosa.
"They remind us that we must focus all our attention not on what we have achieved, but on what we haven't."
Five-year-old Lumka Mketwa drowned after she fell into a pit latrine at Luna Junior Primary School in the Eastern Cape in March this year. In 2014 Michael Komape, also five years old, drowned in a pit toilet at Mahlodumela Primary School in Limpopo.
Michael's family went to court to claim damages and to compel the government to provide decent sanitation. The Limpopo High Court, however, dismissed their case in April but they have since been granted leave to appeal. The matter is still pending.
Flush toilets installed in 11 000 schools since 1994
"We have heard the cries of anguished families, we have felt the outrage of a society that cannot bear to witness another needless death," Ramaphosa said.
According to an audit by the Department of Basic Education, there are still 3 998 schools across the country that only have pit toilets and a further 3 040 schools with proper sanitation as well as pit toilets that have not been demolished.
The provinces worst affected are KwaZulu-Natal, the Eastern Cape and Limpopo.
Ramaphosa said while significant progress in addressing the backlog had been made, more was needed.
"In the public school system, since the advent of democracy, over 11 000 schools have been provided with flush toilets linked either to a municipal connection or a septic tank.
"In instances where reticulated water connections are not available, government has provided appropriate alternative sanitation technologies in a further 9 600 public schools.
"Despite this progress, we are painfully aware that we have not done enough, and we are not moving nearly as fast as we need to," Ramaphosa said.
During Ramaphosa's speech, three women from Equal Education stood up in a silent protest. They held up placards pointing out that the Department of Basic Education had appealed a court judgment looking at remedying the issue of sanitation in schools.
Speaking to News24, Hopolang Selebalo, the co-head of research at Equal Education said: "We are surprised as well as the department missed its own deadline in 2016 to provide sanitation, water and electricity to all schools."
She added that she was surprised that the initiative had been launched now, despite Michael drowning in a pit latrine four years ago.
"We have known that the issue of pit latrines is dire, particularly in rural provinces, for years," she said.
Ramaphosa said the SAFE initiative would spare generations of young South Africans the indignity, discomfort and danger of using pit latrines and other unsafe facilities.