Maverick Citizen


‘Our children’s education is not free’ — Soweto parents battle to pay their kids’ internet costs

‘Our children’s education is not free’ — Soweto parents battle to pay their kids’ internet costs
(Photo: Waldo Swiegers / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Some learners in Soweto are not allowed to use their schools’ WiFi and computers after school hours for assignments and research. Their parents have to pay for them to use internet cafés — which they can barely afford.

Joseph Maswanganyi (39) from Orlando says he is confused by teachers telling his children they must go home and google their assignments or do research at home while the school has internet connectivity and computers.

“I’m a gardener at Parkview. I’m not making lots of money, it’s just money to pay rent, buy a little food and transport money to go to work. With this little money, I have to stretch it to buy a school uniform.

“Now there is this extra data money that I must give to my children every day. Teachers say students should go home and google their research at home. But an hour at the internet café is R12 or more. It depends on which location you are at to google. Then to print out a page, it’s R5 or R3, but it is unusual to find it less than R3.

“Sometimes an hour is not enough. You will need to have R24 to get what you want. Where will I get the money for three children to pay for printouts and Google?’’ he asked.

education soweto internet

A price list inside an internet cafe in Soweto. Poor families sometimes have to choose between buying small units of electricity, food or paying for data for their children at an internet cafe. (Photo: Tshabalira Lebakeng)

The mother of Maswanganyi’s children died in 2020 from Covid-19. She worked as a street vendor. “The little money she was making by selling vegetables and fruits was making a big difference to our life.”

He and his wife wanted to provide their children with education, but it’s becoming increasingly unaffordable.

“Just imagine how much I must give my three children, for data or the internet café a month. Why don’t schools give our children a chance to do their school assignments on school computers and using the school WiFi?

“What’s the use of schools having a big class full of computers and data, but the children are struggling to do their research and assignments? At the end of the day, the teachers still want their work from our poor children.’’

‘Free education is not free’

Elizabeth Chitja (30) from Diepkloof said she misses the old schools where teachers wrote in chalk on blackboards.

“This new free education thing, it’s not free at all.

“At my son’s school, teachers showed us parents the beautiful computers in the classroom. They told us it will help to make black children’s education better and easier to do schoolwork. Also, the school has WiFi to connect to the internet.

“It’s always said our township’s schools will be modernised, like white schools in town. But I don’t see that. As parents, we are still paying for internet cafés every day, but our government is busy preaching free education.

“Truly speaking, our children’s education is not free, [for] 15 minutes it’s R5 [to use the internet]. What a child can research in 15 minutes shows that we need a lot of money to do more work online,’’ she said.

Chitja said she sometimes has to choose between buying a bus ticket to go to work or buying data for her son at an internet café. 

“They don’t take credit at the internet shop, they tell you that ink and paper is expensive, so they need to make a profit to buy all they need.

education soweto internet

Children at school in Johannesburg. (Photo: Gallo Images / Luba Lesolle)

“I nearly got fired at work, because I used the company computer to research and print my child’s schoolwork. I was sad when my supervisor told me that we say we want free things in Soweto, but now I’m stealing his company’s internet and paper for printouts.

“I wasn’t stealing. I was saving my child from the humiliation of the teachers. One day, my child told a teacher that he didn’t do any assignments because he didn’t have money for data. The teacher responded to my child: ‘I don’t care if you steal data money or… rob a bank, what I want [is] my work.’

“I think our government must come to us parents and tell us what free education is if the school can’t assist our children with school WiFi,” said Chitja.

Florence Motaung (38), from Welkom in the Free State, said in a month she spends R1,035 on data for her son to do schoolwork, which is a lot for her as a single parent.

“My child is in Grade 7, but I’m already spending a lot on his internet café and data. What will happen when he’s in Grade 12?

“In South Africa, everything is expensive; we can feel poverty even though we are going to work every day. Working or not working, we are the same. I can’t afford extra expenses.

“Why do the schools get tools to help our poor children, but they don’t serve the purpose? When I don’t have money for data, my child gets stressed because the teachers will mock him,” she said.

“Where is the free education we were promised when we were voting? Please, we need help. The Department of Basic Education should help us.

“One day I went to school and asked if it’s not possible for them to open computer classes for poor children who can’t afford data. They told me that I’m getting a Sassa grant for my child, so I have to buy data for him. Really, I don’t know what to do any more. I owe people money because of this everyday internet and data and lots of printouts.

“Now the school is telling us that we must also contribute petrol money for a generator to fight [the] electricity shortage or load shedding. So now we will pay for school petrol, data, food, and our own problems. Now these are too much,” said Motaung.

‘Crying because of joy’

The owner of Musa’s Internet Café in Orlando said learners come to his place every day to do homework and assignments.

“Some of the schoolchildren come to do too much schoolwork but don’t have enough money to pay. They take a long time to get what they want… when it’s time up it becomes a problem,’’ he said.

He said recently five learners didn’t have money to complete their work, which involved colour printouts.

“Those pictures have their own prices because they are in colour. But they don’t have money [and] the teachers want their work tomorrow. I find myself standing in front of these innocent children. They were begging me to give them an hour to finish the schoolwork.

“When I looked at my prepaid electric meter the units were drowning. I had to buy electricity, ink, data, bundles of paper and to pay the young man who is helping me.

“I didn’t have time for charity, I needed each and every cent that came by the door. But because we are humans, ubuntu is what we are born with.

“I gave the children an hour to do what they need. I can’t explain the joy in their faces when I’m telling them they must finish their schoolwork. Some were dancing, some were crying because of joy.

“These children love school, they love their work. What they need, it’s just a little help and support from their communities, also from the government,” Musa said.

Maverick Citizen asked for comment from Gauteng Basic Education spokesperson Steve Mabona. Mabona’s response was: “Free basic education is a national policy, not only in Soweto.” He said, “Your article is biased, you should write about the whole of South Africa, not only education in Soweto.”

Mabona said we should direct our questions to Elijah Mahlangu, the spokesperson for the national department.

When we receive a response from Mahlangu we will publish it.

However, in the meantime, we invite parents and learners in other areas to tell us how they access computers and the internet. DM

Tshaba’s Eye is a regular feature in Maverick Citizen in which homeless writer Tshabalira Lebakeng reports on the day-to-day challenges and issues faced by residents of Soweto. Contact him at [email protected]


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