When an 11-year-old boy broke down while describing how he was ordered to scrape through heaps of faeces to retrieve a cellphone, community activist Petrus Majola struggled to contain his own emotions.
“The tears that came from that boy’s eyes and the sound of him crying — it bothered me so I immediately acted,” he told the Sunday Times this week.
Majola released a video on Sunday after visiting the boy’s home in Ugie in the Eastern Cape, voicing his disgust at what the child had been subjected to, and calling on authorities to immediately intervene.
It detailed how the Lututu Junior Secondary School pupil was allegedly stripped to his underwear, tied to one end of a rope and lowered into a pit latrine to search for his principal’s cellphone, which had fallen down the pit.
The grade 4 pupil, who is undergoing counselling, has not had an easy life. His mother died in 2018 when she was hit by a train in Cape Town, where she worked. He lives with his 76
year-old grandmother, his seven-year-old sister and two teenage cousins whose father was killed in a shooting in Cape Town.
“I survive by using these four child support grants of R450 each and my old age grant. I have a small vegetable garden that I plant spinach, potatoes and maize in. This garden is very important to me and my grandchildren,” the grandmother revealed.
She said the boy had returned home from school on March 1 smelling of human excrement.
“Even though he had changed I could still smell the stench from him. He didn’t even want to eat … I found that strange from him, as the first thing he does when he comes home is eat.”
She said the principal apologized a week later. “I have accepted his apology, but I still do not want him close to any child,” she said.
The South African Human Rights Commission is investigating the matter, its Eastern Cape regional manager, Loyiso Mpondo, confirmed. The incident, coming in the month SA marks Human Rights Day, highlights one of the country’s most shameful failures in education — access to proper sanitation. There are still 1,243 pit latrines at Eastern Cape schools.
This week Equal Education and the Equal Education Law Centre urged the government to increase efforts to eradicate pit latrines at schools.
“It is deeply disturbing that a learner could be dehumanised and endangered in this way,” the organisations said.
Majola, who is the director of the Khula Development Centre, said family dynamics could have played a role in how the incident unfolded.
“The child viewed the principal as a person of authority and he believed he would never do him any harm. When you speak of an African child, especially a child who grew up in an environment like that, raised by a grandmother, they are not raised in rebellion but to follow the orders of an adult,” he said.
“I asked him whether he volunteered. The child said, ‘I didn’t volunteer. The principal instructed me to, saying I was slender and could easily go down the toilet.’ ”
This week social workers and education officials visited the family.
“He told me how he tried going through the heaps of faeces with his hands, not knowing where he could possibly find the phone but eventually he gave up. I think he gave up because the stench was also becoming unbearable,” said Majola.
“He broke down as he narrated this story to me. That is when I decided to escalate this thing to the officials.”
Majola had been informed of the incident by community members who claimed when they went to the school to get answers, they were turned away.
Within hours of the video being released, officials from the Eastern Cape education and social development departments undertook to investigate.
The principal, Lubeko Lennox Mgandela, was suspended and charged with child abuse when he briefly appeared in court on Wednesday. He was released on R2,500 bail. The case was postponed to May 27.
“Going in there was a risk to the child’s life,” said Majola. “That is why we were happy with the initial charge of attempted murder, which was later changed to a charge under the provisions of the Children’s Act.”
Mgandela refused to comment when approached this week.
Following outrage by community members, Mgandela reportedly visited the boy’s grandmother and apologised. She accepted the apology but maintained that the principal is a danger to society.
“That man is evil … ngusathana ongafunekiyo ebantwaneni [he is the devil himself who should not be allowed near children at all] … If ibingowakhe umntwanana lona wenzi lanto ebezakuthi [if it was his child who was made to do what he did to my grandson, what would he do]?” the grandmother said.