After months of complaining to authorities about the dire conditions at Waterval High in Limpopo, fed up learners and their parents barricaded the streets around the school to draw attention to their grievances.
They were angry that their pleas to have the dilapidated buildings fixed, had fallen on deaf ears. They believed the school was unsafe and not an environment conducive to learning, and demanded that the Department of Education fix the school's classrooms.
And they were also unhappy about the condition of the ablution blocks where ceilings are caving in and some toilets do not flush, while others leak.
Neither the school's governing body (SGB) nor the principal were aware that Waterval High had been identified by the National Lotteries Commission (NLC) for the "construction of ablution facilities".
It is one of ten rural schools in Limpopo and 15 in the Eastern Cape, many with only pit toilets, selected as recipients of a R20 million school toilet upgrade project.
By the time the protest took place on 9 April, a "refurbishment" of the toilets at Waterval High had already been completed by a subcontractor hired by Zibsifusion, a Pretoria-based non-profit company contracted by the NLC to handle the project. The company received a R10 million grant to build toilets facilities at 10 schools in Limpopo.
A sub-contractor had arrived at Waterval over a weekend in February this year, "slapped some paint on some walls and replaced two doors", SGB members said.
Learners and parents at Waterfal Secondary School protested on 9 April.
Zibsifusion shares an address and the same directors with another non-profit company, Dinosys, which also received a further R10 million contract for the "construction of sanitation facilities" at 15 schools in the Eastern Cape. The companies, which are both associated with controversial Pretoria lawyer Leslie Ramulifho, were each paid R7-million upfront after signing a contract with the NLC.
The NLC has refused to explain how they selected two companies with no track record on similar construction projects, to handle the multimillion rand project.
The story took another twist last week when the NLC invited local media to attend a "hand over" of supposedly newly-constructed toilets at Waterval, and two other schools in Polokwane in Limpopo.
Despite the NLC claiming that it does close monitoring and evaluation of funded projects, the (NLC) officials who arrived for the ceremony expressed "dissatisfaction" at the job done at Waterval and postponed the handover.
This was in spite of the NLC earlier supplying media with a report showing supposed progress in the building of new toilets at three Limpopo school, including Waterval. The report contained photos purportedly showing advanced construction of toilet facilities at the three schools. Close scrutiny of the photos reveals that several of the same or similar photos have been used to show progress at different schools.
At a hastily convened press conference NLC head of communications Ndivhuho Mafela dismissed the duplicate "before and after" pictures of Waterval as a "mistake".
He told journalists that in spite of Lottery money being spent on renovations to Waterval's toilets, they were "not fit for humans". Asked about who had done the work at the school, Mafela said: "I don't want to get into the mechanics of that right now."
In a press release, the NLC said: "The Commission has instructed the service provider and independent engineers to implement corrective measures, and ensure quality assurance of the projects in consultation with the Provincial Education Department and the school's SGB."
NLC on the attack
Shortly after Groundup published a story about the Zibsifusion and Dinosys grants, the NLC went on the attack, lambasting reporter Raymond Joseph. Ramulifho also failed in an attempt to get an urgent interdict to muzzle Joseph and GroundUp and other publications that had run the story.
It called the report "frivolous" and "mischievous" and said it was part of a personal crusade to "tarnish the image" of the NLC.
The same NLC press release also highlighted its schools sanitation projects. "The NLC has funded the construction of ablution facilities in ten schools within the jurisdiction of the most disadvantaged communities in our country with the intention of restoring the dignity of the young black children in post democratic South Africa," the statement said.
"To this end the NLC has appointed professional, independent engineers to assist in the quality assurance of these projects and the monitoring and evaluation thereof. The progress reports depicting work done to date in all schools within the aforementioned provinces are attached hereto for ease of reference," the NLC stated. However, no progress report was attached.
Asked for a copy of the missing report, Mafela instead sent a press release with details of a study showing that in Limpopo "almost 80% of schools still rely on old infrastructure for water and sanitation services." Pressed for a copy of the missing report, Mafela finally forwarded a PowerPoint presentation on 2 April.
The metadata in the presentation shows it was created on 4 March by Zibsifusion director Liesl Moses, two days after Joseph submitted questions about the projects to the NLC. The last edit on the document was done on 25 March by Marubini Ramatsekisa, three days after the NLC's press release attacking Groundup's report.
The PowerPoint document lists eight Limpopo schools earmarked for new toilets, even though the NLC is funding toilets at 10 schools. The report indicated that advanced construction work was in progress at three of the schools; Ncheleleng Secondary School, Tibanefontein Primary School in Polokwane, and Waterval High.
"The other schools are still in progress of its (sic) final assessments," according to the report, which includes "before and after" photos of purported work on toilets at the three schools. One photo, showing a sturdy brick building under construction, has been used to illustrate progress at all three schools. Another has been used for two different schools and others appear to be of the same buildings taken from different angles.
Mafela dismissed this as a "mistake" and said the photos of work in progress at Waterval were "not supposed" to be included in the report.
No new toilets at Waterval
When GroundUp journalists visited Waterval on April 9 to report on the protest, Gladys Maluleke, the chairperson of the SGB, told them that parents had been unsuccessfully "pleading" with the Department of Education to renovate school's buildings. "Our children are no longer safe in these classes. That is why we took a decision to close the school," Maluleke said.
And when the reporters returned to the school a few days later to investigate further, deputy SGB chairperson Robert Ngobeni said that they (the SGB) were unaware of any money donated by Lottery to build toilets,.
"We were approached by a Mr Ofense Modibane from Zipsfusion (sic) who wanted to do repairs. Later the renovations were done by Tebogo Morulane and his team. We are not sure whether Morulane was subcontracted," he said.
The school register confirms that Modibane visited the school in January. The "renovations" were apparently done over a weekend in February, Ngobeni said. "They did a shoddy job, because the toilets started leaking in less than a month."
Enquiries at the three other Vhembe-based schools on the NLC list indicated no evidence that anything was yet happening involving new Lottery-funded toilets.
Nthabalala Primary School has about 150 learners who use pit toilets. The principal referred questions to the SGB chairperson Elisa Rambuda, who said she knew nothing about the proposed toilets.
People who said they were from the Limpopo Department of Education visited the school last year in December during the school holidays for a "survey", but they had not received any feedback, she said.
Tshikhovhokhovho Primary School at Khumbe village at Lwamondo has approximate 180 learners. SGB spokesperson Mbulaheni Thaba said the school has already built toilets using funds raised by the learners.
Attempts to contact the principal or an SGB member at Tshilapfene Primary School, which has 200 learners, were unsuccessful.
A disastrous road show
The NLC road show last Thursday to hand over toilets appears to have been hastily organised in an attempt to counter negative media reports. It kicked off in the morning at Ncheleleng and Tibanefontein, two rural schools near Polokwane in. Both featured in the Zibsifusion report, with at least one identical photo, and some very similar ones, used to show progress at both schools.
"Facilities at Ncheleleng and Tibanefontein schools, which previously used pit latrines, were handed over to the School Governing Body (SGB), principals, and learners who expressed gratitude to the Commission for this contribution that will change their daily experiences," said the NLC's Mafela afterwards in a press statement. A single photo of a completed ablution block, supposedly taken at one of the schools, was supplied with the NLC's press release.
When the NLC delegation arrived at Waterval in the afternoon, they were met by agitated SGB members, staff and other stakeholders. Before their arrival the people present inspected the ablution facilities. In the boys' toilets they found water spilled all over the floor and two of the six toilets were not working. The roof also needed urgent repairs and paint on the facia boards was peeling off. The girls' block has eight toilets, but at least three do not flush.
Two of the men who "renovated" the toilets were also present, but refused to identify themselves. "Building new toilets is a new story to us," one said. "We came here for renovations only."
The school's deputy SGB chairperson, Robert Ngobeni later claimed that one of the men made a veiled threat that the funds allocated for Waterval would be utilised elsewhere should the school complain about the project.
During the press conference at Waterval, the NLC's Mafela was asked about the invitation sent to the media, stating that toilets would be handed over at the three schools. Just a day earlier Mafela, in an interview with a local radio station, said that toilets would be handed over at Waterval.
But a day later his story had changed dramatically.
"Today we came here and inspected the facilities that we have funded and we agreed with the SGB, the headmaster and members of the community that the result of what we funded is not what we expected. We agreed that the mistake that we made needs to be rectified," Mafela said.
Asked for details of the contractors responsible for the shoddy work, Mafela refused to name them. "I currently do not want to get into the mechanics of that right now. All I can tell you is that we have all admitted and agreed that the ablution facilities at this school are not all up to the standard ... they are not fit for humans. We have agreed that we are going to fix and bring them to the standard that everybody expects," he said.
Sam Makondo, spokesperson for the Department of Education, said the department was aware of the project and had met with the NLC representatives at the end of 2018. The department identified the schools in need of new toilets or renovations.
He said that the various school principals were informed about the projects. Even though photos of Waterval High were included in the Zibsifusion progress report, Makondo said the school was never scheduled to get new toilets. Construction work at the other schools would start "soon", he said.
The role of Lottopreneurs
The NLC has previously been accused of encouraging a system of "Lottopreneurs", who use borrowed, hijacked or dodgy NPOs and NPCs to access Lottery funding.
After an investigation into the controversy surrounding Lesley Ramulifho was aired on Carte Blanche recently, the NLC issued a press release attempting to justify the grants made to Dinosys and Zibsifusion.
"To this end the Commission has appointed professional, independent engineers to assist in the quality assurance of these projects and the monitoring and evaluation thereof. We assure the South African public and our beneficiaries that the NLC remains committed to clean governance and all allegations of misuse of funds by the beneficiaries are taken seriously and investigated thoroughly," the statement reads.
Mafela and Zibsifusion directors did not answer specific questions sent to them. Given an opportunity to comment on Zibsifusion previously, Ramulifho said he was not involved in the company. He also said that any queries about Zibsifusion should be sent to its directors.
The list of questions included a query as to why Zibsifusion was chosen to drive the schools sanitation project. It has no track record suggesting it can handle projects of this nature, and is also not based in the provinces where the toilets projects are taking place.
Other questions sent to the NLC concerned the absence of any professionals at the Waterval High project. The NLC also failed to supply the names of professional people and companies involved in the project.
The cost of an ablution block
To build a block of toilets for a school where there is no running water, is not a cheap exercise. Limpopo Mirror spoke to a quantity surveyor who, up until a few years ago, managed a number of such projects at schools.
The surveyor, who wanted to remain anonymous, estimated that a four-seat toilet block would cost R535 000 plus VAT. This would not include professional fees for an architect or engineer, which would add about seven percent to the total. A toilet block catering for 200 children would need about eight "seats", four for boys and four for girls and would cost about R1,3 million.
The reason for it being so expensive is because the Enviro-loo tanks need to be buried in the ground and this calls for reinforced concrete slabs, he said. The location of the school will also influence costs, and it is more expensive to do construction in outlying areas, he said.
The Department of Education provides norms and standards for building toilets. These are in line with the National Building Regulations (two toilets per classroom), but vary in some circumstances. For primary schools the ratio of toilets per pupil is 1:25, while it drops to 1:20 for secondary schools. The maximum for primary schools is set at 1:35 and for high schools it is 1:30.
This story has been co-published with the Limpopo Mirror.
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