For 13-year-old Thabo, lunch is a luxury. So selling his school’s Wi-Fi password brings him a few bucks every day to help him buy lunch.

Thabo is one of millions of impoverished children in South Africa who don’t have access to the internet at home. Yet his school’s internet is supposed to be free for access to students like him. But for Thabo and some of his classmates, free Wi-Fi access also makes for a lucrative small business to help keep hunger at bay.

Here’s how it works: For a small fee, students reveal the school’s Wi-Fi password to people who live near the school and don’t have internet at home or data on their phones.

“The going rate is 10 to 20 rands [70 cents to $1.40] or less. On a good day, I can scoop 50 rands [$3.50],” said Thabo, who lives in Duduza Township, about 35 miles away from Johannesburg, South Africa’s largest city. (As Thabo is a minor, Rest of World had consent from his guardian when he was interviewed, and we are only using his first name).

In theory, Wi-Fi at schools across South Africa, like at Thabo’s, is meant for students and their teachers. But many from the poor households dotted around schools feel the free Wi-Fi offered to students should be opened up for households too.

While household poverty in South Africa’s townships encourages students like Thabo to leak Wi-Fi passwords for cash, on the other end of the transaction is a desperate need for cheap internet access. Even though South Africa has some of the most developed telecommunications infrastructure on the continent and is generally regarded as Africa’s most advanced economy, it is also the world’s most unequal country, with a Gini coefficient of 63 in 2014, according to the World Bank. Many families in some of the country’s poorest townships struggle to comfortably afford enough internet data for their phones, even as everything from essential government services to daily entertainment begin to move online.

This is even after the #DataMustFall campaign, which started in 2016 with South Africa’s netizens co-opting the anti-colonialist #MustFall protest hashtag to call out local telecomms players on what were deemed exorbitant prices for internet access, even relative to other African countries. Within a couple of years of the campaign’s launch, South Africa’s major telecomms companies Vodacom, MTN, and Cell C were told by a governmental agency to slash data prices, in some instances, by up to 50%.

Among suggestions brought forward by organizers under the Right2Know banner was for some portion of digital spectrum to be used for public interest, including offering free public Wi-Fi. By March 2020, all three telecomms companies announced that they had reduced data packages and made a commitment to offer free data for essential services. But despite the earlier drop in data prices, the delay in wider spectrum allocation has meant that the reduction in prices is still far from reaching the 50% mark, the telecomms operators have argued.

In essence, most low-income families still find themselves unable to afford data to access essential online services. With the cheapest unlimited 4G data packages priced around 450 rand ($32), the majority of low-income township households — many living below the poverty line of 561 rand ($37) a month — can’t afford regular internet access. 

Thabo’s school, Tandi Eleanor Sibeko (TES), is one of two schools with free Wi-Fi in densely populated Duduza, the other is Asser Maloka Secondary School, where Rest of World also saw students selling school Wi-Fi passwords. Locales with no school or public Wi-Fi connectivity have seen some residents walking up to 6 kilometers just to dodge security and connect to Wi-Fi in these two schools. 

“I’d even climb a mountain if I were to find a free Wi-Fi connection there,” said Bongani Badi, 20, who uses Wi-Fi to stay in touch with his girlfriend in Durban over WhatsApp. Though long unemployed and frustrated, like many of South Africa’s 3.3 million youths without work, he often wakes up as early as 6 a.m. to walk 2 kilometers to the school. He’s been using the school Wi-Fi for two years, not just to send messages to his “sweetheart” but also to reach potential employers via email. He sometimes attaches a CV saved on his phone, but he’s still unemployed some 50 CV messages later.

“We’re happy to breach school Wi-Fi by buying under the table,” Badi told Rest of World. “Though this means cat-and-mouse fights with school security guards, at least pirated Wi-Fi keeps us off drugs or delinquency,” he said.

Due to congestion created by the illegal Wi-Fi password market, staff and students in South Africa’s townships, like Thabo, often find the internet “painfully slow” during school hours. Networks are throttled by too many poachers’ devices, and the best efforts to stop them haven’t worked so far. “Much as we tried, we could not get youths off our school premises; police have been called, and our security have tried, but in vain,” Moyeni Skosana, the principal of TES school, told Rest of World. “We are working on a solution.”  

The futile attempts to free up the network and reduce students’ exposure to the risk of local unemployed youth hanging around the school grounds has left some staff members deeply frustrated.

“Equalizing digital opportunities in townships is not sustainable as long as social inequalities exist.”

“The very students and youths that our government is trying to empower go and backstab us by giving away the school Wi-Fi password,” said Bongani Masimula, a representative from TES’ Information Communication Technology committee. “At first, our school had a state-of-the-art surveillance camera system and equipment. But all were stolen during the night. Equalizing digital opportunities in townships is not sustainable as long as social inequalities exist.”

In 2017, the South African government embarked on a $27 million project to deliver broadband connectivity to government facilities, and broadband access to 90% of the country’s population by 2020. The plan was to have universal broadband internet coverage by 2030. But the progress of the project has been slow, with marginalized townships such as Duduza lagging on the initiative. 

Spots, such as public clinics, in the area where people normally hang around to connect to the free internet suffer from poor connectivity, with people hardly managing to send basic texts, let alone downloads. Schools, on the other end, are targeted for having better internet signals aimed at facilitating academic advancement. Although unauthorized, many people console themselves through the belief that government resources such as school Wi-Fi should be free for all to use when and how they see fit.

In nearby townships such as Kwathema, about 15 kilometers away, the government has started installing fiber-optic cable networks as part of the broadband project, to provide affordable basic internet access to not only townships but peri-urban and small towns. But the project is yet to see its completion, and prices per household are yet to be determined. In the townships, open Wi-Fi can be found at some public places, such as clinics and local municipal business centers, but residents struggle to get real connections, let alone do basic surfing.

But Duduza township is yet to see the dawn of household fiber-optic connections. 

Promises have also been made for the provision of free data to households. While they wait, the available option for township youngsters such as those in Duduza is to breach school Wi-Fi passwords.

“The government promised free Wi-Fi access years ago, but it is yet to happen. Meanwhile, school Wi-Fi is still our best bet,” said Badi.