In 2014, the story of Michael Komape, a five-year-old boy who drowned in a pit latrine at school, drew widespread attention to the unsafe and unsanitary nature of many schools across South Africa. In response, the government announced plans to rid all schools of unsafe pit toilets within two years. But according to 2018 government statistics, out of 23,471 public schools, 4,358 still have illegal plain pit latrines for sanitation, and, it is estimated that it will take 14 years to replace the latrines in one province alone.

A 2020 report by Amnesty International,  found that the South African education system is still characterised by crumbling infrastructure, overcrowded classrooms and poor educational outcomes. Many children across Gauteng, the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal are still learning in hazardous and poorly maintained buildings, lacking security measures against vandalism and burglary. In addition, many children have to walk an average of 3km to school every day, further exposing them to risks of crime and poor health.

This state of schools has a direct impact on learning outcomes. Poor facilities can cause children to feel unsafe, unheard or unmotivated, resulting in irregular attendance and higher drop-out rates.

The quality of education in South Africa remains very poor mostly in the historically deprived areas; the schools do not even meet the basic learning infrastructure requirements such as access to laboratories, libraries and Internet connections; schools have less qualified educators. As a result, learners experience learning deprivation, higher-grade repetition and dropout rates (Statistics South Africa, 2015 and 2016).

For every 100 learners who start Grade 1 together, about 40 drop out of the school system before reaching Grade 12, most of these drop-outs will remain stuck in poverty and unemployment for life. This does not only leave the economy with population who cannot participate in developing the economy it leaves this population largely dependent on social grants and pension funds, crippling their chances of social mobility.

Globally, as many as 443 million school days are lost annually due to sickness caused by poor water and sanitation conditions. Additionally, full classrooms and a lack of resources causes higher teacher turnover.

South African schools are also facing an increase in challenges such as bullying, gangsterism and serious violence crimes such as murder, causing learners and teachers to feel even more unsafe.

The Centre for Justice and Crime prevention study on National School Violence noted that 15.3% of children at primary and secondary schools have experienced some form of violence while at school, most commonly threats of violence, assaults and robbery.

Research overwhelmingly suggests that effective teaching and learning can occur only in a safe and secure school environment, and as we see most children attending primary school, and enrolment approaches 100%, the quality of schools and the education provided need to be peaceful, safe and conducive to learning. Our schools need to be equipped and safe enough to develop citizens that are able to fully participate in the economy and be proactive in nation-building.

It is no doubt that South Africa inherited a deeply unequal and divided education system in 1994 and that today’s broken and unsafe education system is further perpetuating cycles of inequality.

Inequality threatens to pull our societies apart and undermine social cohesion, therefore one cannot turn a blind eye to schools that remain unsafe and the quality of schools and education that remains inadequate.  It’s a trend that will further perpetuate inequality, and if not given serious attention, is likely to continue into 2030.