TOWARDS A SOCIETY OF EQUALS: A reflection on three years of Maverick Citizen

On this day three years ago Maverick Citizen broke ground as the Daily Maverick’s new kid on the block with the tragic story of five old Michael Komape who in 2014 fell into a dilapidated pit toilet and died from asphyxiation by human excrement. 

At the time, civil society organisation SECTION27 along with the Komape family were at the Supreme court of appeal in Bloemfontein challenging a judgment by the Polokwane high court that refused to grant the family compensation for the unimaginable death of their child in such a gruesome and at the time unheard of manner. 

Michael Komape drowned in a pit toilet at his school. (Photo: Supplied / / Wikipedia)

That case was a significant story to begin with because the inaugural Maverick Citizen had at some or other point been touched and or involved in the case but it also set the tone for what Maverick Citizen was to be about. The Komape case was a blight on our democracy as it showed the callousness of the state’s attitude towards the value of poor people’s lives. The Polokwane high court judge’s refusal to award a damages claim to the family also showed latent prejudice — that a rural, black family’s grief was not recognised nor worthy of being acknowledged and compensated. The combination of court reporting, video and photographic imagery, ope-eds as well as sound recordings of the case brought humanity and dignity to a very important story in our country’s history.

Rosina Komape flanked by her two eldest children, Lucas and Lydia. (Photo: Thom Pierce)

Without the work of civil society mobilisation and subsequent reporting on the need to fix sanitation in schools, Michael Komape would’ve never made it into the imagination of the rest of the country. The issue probably would not have even made it into president Cyril Ramaphosa’s speech in August 2018, when he announced the launch of the Sanitation Appropriate for Education (Safe) initiative meant to address the issue of pit toilets.

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The outcome of the appeal announced in December 2019 was successful and the Komapes were granted compensation, the judgment also upheld the Limpopo high court’s structural order instructing the Limpopo Department of Basic Education to come up with a proper costed plan with timelines of how they will eradicate pit toilets and fix sanitation in schools. This is however still an ongoing process which we have continued to cover.

The Komape story was an example of our intention to highlight the issues plaguing our society’s most vulnerable people. Children’s vulnerability remains one of our focus areas, whether in the basic education system on the issue of corporal punishment, the national school nutrition programme or the impact of Covid-19 — not only on their schooling but also on children’s mental health.

This is the pit latrine that Michael Komape drowned in. This photo was taken by Charles Malebana shortly after the incident. (Photo: Supplied)

At Maverick Citizen, we aim to raise the profiles of under-reported stories concerning civil society’s efforts towards ensuring that we, as a country, achieve our constitutional democracy aspirations and that poor people’s experiences and stories of both struggle and hope are centred. In our country, it is very easy to slip into a comatose state of hopelessness and despair and sometimes disengage completely and focus on a limited narrative of political ‘bad guys’ and a citizenry of ‘victims’. This is why the stories we report on and the expert analysis we publish are important to provide balance and solutions-based social justice journalism.

Maverick Citizen’s three years have whizzed by, with the majority of our focus centred on Covid-19 coverage, as the pandemic gripped the world barely six months after our launch. However, the wealth of health system knowledge and networks within the team made us a trusted source of news on the pandemic. As we attempt to emerge from Covid-19’s grip we are excited to work on more human rights-based stories that will not only inform but also inspire our readers. Here’s to another year of being Maverick Citizens. DM/MC 

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