THE case of five-year-old Michael Komape who suffocated to death in human feces after falling into a dilapidated pit latrine in Limpopo may be far from over.
Whilst the case at some stage was characterised by some as that of a family seeking monetary gain, Section 27 – an NGO with interest in equality and social justice and acted as Komape family’s legal representative – has since indicated that “the case was about the suffering, trauma and grief and continue to mourn the loss of life of their five-year-old son who died under the most gruesome circumstances”.
The organisation has already taken instruction from the family to appeal the judgement of the Polokwane High Court which dismissed constitutional damages claim brought by the family.
“Whilst we welcome the structural interdict to provide adequate and safe sanitation for learners in the Limpopo Province, we are at the same time extremely disappointed that the suffering of the Komape family and the circumstances of Michael’s death has been insufficiently recognised and acknowledged.
“It is our view that this is a missed opportunity for developing the law in respect of constitutional damages. The failure to award damages in this case stands in contrast to the damages that were awarded by the retired Deputy Chief Justice Moseneke to the families of the Life Esidemeni victims for the callous treatment of the victims in that case,” the organisation said.
Judge GC Muller, in his judgement dismissed the claim for constitutional damages and grief for R2m. As an alternative for a claim for grief, Muller ordered the Department of Basic Education and the Limpopo Department of Education to do the following:
- supply and install adequate sanitation at each rural school currently equipped with pit latrines in Limpopo Province;
- furnish the court with a list of all the schools in rural areas with pit toilets for use by the learners;
- furnish the court with a detailed period required to replace all the current pit toilets at schools so identified;
- submit a detailed program developed by the relevant experts based for the installation of the toilets on an assessment made in respect of the suitable sanitation technology requirements of each school inclusive of a proposed date for the commencement of the work.
However, the judge agreed to the claim for future medical treatment for the Komape’s three minor children, Maria and Onica. He ordered the Department of Basic Education and the Limpopo Department of Education to pay R6 000 each to Maria and Onica.
In their court documents, Education authorities argued that replacing all pit latrines in the province was more beneficial to all learners than the awarding of compensation on constitutional grounds to one family.
Spokesperson for the National Department of Basic Education, Elijah Mhlanga, said:
“This judgement comes at a time when, as the Department of Basic Education, we are seized with the matter of school infrastructure and pit latrines in particular as per President Cyril Ramaphosa’s directive that addressing sanitation infrastructure backlogs must be accelerated.
“The judgement falls directly in-line with the directive from the President which goes even further than the judgement to include all schools across the entire country, not just in Limpopo Province. Work in this regard is already underway.”
During the hearing, Michael’s mother, Rosina, testified of how she received a call two hours after her son had gone missing at Mahlodumela Primary School outside Polokwane. She grabbed her newborn baby, Johanna, and rushed to the school.
She searched the school premises on her own before she was taken to the dilapidated pit latrine. She was confronted by a little hand protruding from the bottom pf the pit.
Rosina also described how the image continued to haunt her and the pain of losing a child.
Michael’s father, James, also spoke of the moment his son’s lifeless body was hauled from the pit, the image of him being covered in a throwaway carpet which lay nearby and the pain of knowing he will never see his son again.
He also told the judge of how the principal, members of the school governing body, the teachers and the police forced his friend to delete the images from his phone which he had taken at the scene. He recalled how his son never complained when he did not have money to send with him to school.