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.