Hundreds, possibly thousands, of Swazi children rent dingy, unfurnished rooms in Mpumalanga so that they can attend school because the cost of education in the kingdom is exorbitant.
Residents of border towns say it is common to find children from neighbouring Swaziland renting rooms so they can go to school in South Africa.
Among those living in crammed, unhealthy conditions close to the Swaziland border is grade 11 pupil Phiwokwakhe Nxumalo.
The 19-year-old was so desperate to secure a place at a school in the dusty village of Buffelspruit, near Jeppes Reef, that she even repeated grade 10 last year, despite having passed it in Swaziland the year before.
Like many of her compatriots, Nxumalo, who comes from a village in Madlangempisi in the Hhohho district of Swaziland, believes South African schools are a beacon of hope because most of them don’t charge fees. Most importantly, learners are also provided with a free meal every schoolday through the government’s school feeding scheme.
They say the yearly fee charged by high schools in Swaziland is about R6 000.
Those interviewed by the Mail & Guardian were unanimous that their only reason for going to school in South Africa was that education was affordable.
According to the Swaziland ministry of education and training’s website, an “alarming” 74% and 88% of children in the junior and senior secondary schooling phase, respectively, were not attending school.
“Despite government and external funding limitations, the ministry is implementing various interventions aimed at removing cost barriers at primary, secondary and higher education levels,” the website stated.
Nxumalo is making huge sacrifices in her determination to secure “a brighter future” by completing high school and then enrolling for a teaching degree.
Her monthly expenses, which are about R1 400, include rent (R250), food (R400), pocket money (R200), toiletries (R200) and a return taxi fare to Swaziland twice a month (R340).
A single trip from Buffelspruit to her village in Madlangempisi in Swaziland involves taking four taxis.
Despite the odds — her unemployed parents are battling to send her to school — the unassuming teenager said she was determined to complete her matric.
For many South African children, having a table and chair to study is the norm — but Nxumalo has to do her homework lying down on a thin sponge mattress on the floor.
Besides a two-plate stove and a suitcase, in which she neatly keeps her clothes, including her school uniform, there is no other equipment or furniture in the room.
Nxumalo baths in her room using a small plastic bathtub. Water is heated in a small pot on the two-plate stove.
Three other children from Swaziland live in similar fashion in three other rooms in the house.
In Nxumalo’s grade 11 class, there are seven learners, including herself, from Swaziland.
She completed her grades eight, nine and 10 at Maguga Dam High School in Swaziland, where she had to pay R8 000 in fees in grade 10.
Battling to keep her emotions in check, she said: “I am prepared to sleep on the floor because I want a good education. I am really proud of my parents for making the sacrifice to send me to a school in South Africa.”
Nxumalo spends two hours a night and an hour at the crack of dawn studying.
In the final exams last year, she scored five for SiSwati, which is regarded as “a substantial achievement”, and a four for both English first additional language and life orientation. A four means “adequate achievement”.
Said Nxumalo: “If I had a choice, I would have completed my studies in Swaziland because it’s my home country and my family are here in Swaziland.”
Sitting outside the family’s homestead in Madlangempisi, the walls of which are riddled with holes from a hailstorm, Phiwokwakhe’s mother, Emmah Nxumalo, 57, said her proudest moment would be to see her daughter graduating with a teaching qualification.
But she cannot fail to mention the family’s battle to keep Phiwokwakhe and her two sisters, Nokbongwa, 16, and Sihle, 13, in school.
Nokbongwa, who is in grade nine, attends Enyakatfo High School in Swaziland while Sihle, who is in grade seven, is at a school in Buffelspruit.
There are 25 family members living at the Madlangempisi home but none of the adults are employed.
Emmah’s 63-year-old husband, Mgcibelo, collects a state pension of R630 every three months and the family has been living on the maize that they cultivate on their one-and-a-half hectare property.
“We sell the surplus maize to locals and receive about R1 500 to R2 000 a month. If Phiwokwakhe was schooling in Swaziland, she would have had to drop out because we would not have had money to keep her in school,” her mother said.
The family was barely managing to scrape together the R4 000 annual school fees for Nokbongwa. On top of this, she needs R20 daily for taxi fare and a further R10 for pocket money.
The Nxumalos pay R250 for 2 500 litres of water, which lasts for about two weeks, and another R800 for electricity.
Mgcibelo Nxumalo said their sacrifice would have paid off once the three children completed matric in South Africa.
Phiwokwakhe’s brother, Sicelo Nxumalo, said he would also be proud of her if she passed matric because he had failed grade 12.
“But I feel bad that she has to lie on the floor when she’s studying.”
Another Swazi pupil attending grade eight at a South African primary school has a similar story to tell: he started school in South Africa this year because his parents could not afford to pay school fees in Swaziland.
“But I am desperate to get an education at all costs. I like the teachers because they go out of their way to make you understand what they teach,” he said.
Several principals denied having Swazi children in their schools despite evidence that there were Swazi children attending classes. Their reaction was because they had accepted children without proper documentation such as a South African birth certificate or identity document.
Meanwhile, it was established that at least four Mozambican children were attending the Afrikaans-medium, fee-paying Komatipoort Akademie in the border town of Komatipoort.
A source close to the school said two of the children were paying R300 a day each to live in guest houses. The other two, a grade one and grade 11 pupil, live in Ressano Garcia — a town on the Mozambican border — and travel daily to South Africa, crossing the border legally in a car driven by the grade 11 pupil.
“The grade one is struggling because she’s not used to the language of learning, which is Afrikaans. She is Portuguese. The one who is in grade nine [staying at a guest house] is doing very well. She’s been here since grade one and her Afrikaans is superb,” the source said.
Last year Mozambican student Karina da Sousa Pareira, who was in grade 12, bagged distinctions in English first additional language, life sciences and life orientation.
She is now a first-year student at the University of the Free State.
Battered bakkies, bushveld and illegal borders
Armed with only an affidavit or a school report card, hundreds of people enter or leave Swaziland every week through an illegal border crossing in Mpumalanga.
The Mail & Guardian saw how people were crammed like sardines into battered bakkies and ferried to a spot close to Jeppes Reef and near the South African-Swaziland border. They then entered the kingdom without being stopped by South African soldiers.
The bakkies were parked at two informal taxi ranks — one a stone’s throw from the illegal border crossing and the other about 5km away, where the bakkies were parked in the shade of marula trees.
A taxi operator confirmed that 12 bakkies were used to ferry passengers to and from the border crossing. At least 15 people were transported in each bakkie and a single trip to the border cost R15.
In just two hours last Friday, seven bakkieloads of passengers were transported to the illegal border crossing.
Those who opt to use the bakkies board them without any concern that what they are doing is illegal.
Many claim that the practice of crossing the border illegally has been going on for years and that the South African soldiers turn a blind eye to it.
A taxi operator said that those who use the illegal crossing do not have passports.
“Those who do have passports use the Matsamo border gate next to Jeppes Reef,” he said. “We make a living transporting these people to the border. We are not stealing.”
He added that, after crossing the South African side of the border, passengers are searched by Swazi soldiers who inquire about their destination in Swaziland and the date they would be returning to South Africa.
“Our soldiers don’t patrol the spot where people cross over into Swaziland,” he claimed.
A woman whose young daughter uses the bakkie to get to the illegal border crossing said she was always concerned about her safety.
“The bakkies are very old and are always overloaded. It’s not safe.”
She said that, after they alight from the bakkie on the South African side of the border, passengers have to walk along a footpath bordered by dense bush for about 10 minutes before they arrive at the point where they are stopped by Swazi soldiers.
Clearly nervous and agitated by the presence of the M&G team at the informal taxi rank, an angry taxi operator instructed the team to leave, warning that their lives would be in danger if they remained there.
A day after the M&G’s visit, soldiers from the South African National Defence Force arrested nine Swazis at the illegal border crossing for contravening the Immigration Act after they tried to enter Swaziland without passports.
The nine appeared in the Boschfontein court in Mpumalanga on Tuesday and were fined R500 each. — Prega Govender