I write this article after spending a number of weeks living in one of the rural townships, Kamhlushwa, that characterizes the region of Mpumalanga, South Africa. I lived in a small building with a tin roof, cockroaches in the kitchen and water that took 20 minutes to heat up, yet I lived in luxury compared to most. In this region, 84% of people are unemployed, 46% have HIV/Aids and only 7.7% have flushing toilets and piped water in their homes, as stated by a representative of a local education charity in the township.

In my weeks here, I got a sense that the people in the community have almost accepted their fate that they will be poor, unhealthy and only 1.1% of them will receive any kind of higher education,because an alternative seems so farfetched. No one is starving thanks to an extensive program of government benefits, but these benefits do not allow for anything else other than the simple necessities for survival in this rural township.

I believe now that people here live in bizarre economic conditions, which contribute to the sad truth that their chances of success are perversely lower than counterparts in urban areas like Cape Town. However, what are the reasons behind these economic disadvantages in rural South Africa?

Lack of Law and Order

The primary schools in Mpumalanga have barbed wire lining in their fences. This illustrates probably the most basic economic problem: People don’t feel secure. The threat of being robbed or worse means that few people have the courage to invest in anything that attracts unwanted attention, be that a flashy car, a new home, or even a modern office for their business. Anyone that does have any money to spend in Mpumalanga probably keeps it under their floorboards – where it’s not doing any good for anyone.

84% of people are unemployed, 46% have HIV/Aids and only 7.7% have flushing toilets and piped water in their homes, as stated by a representative of a local education charity in the township.

All of the people I interviewed had had their homes broken into at least once. One 15-year old claimed that he fought off a criminal with his bare hands. When I was his age, I would typically tell teachers that I had been forced to viciously wrestle a bear on my way in when I was late. Another student, Chawe, told me that a local militia still existed in the community. The police being so inefficient that a group called the CPF would typically get their hands on troublemakers first. “In most cases, they get a trial,” Chawe said, “It’s just that they might already have been beaten to a pulp by this point.”

Lack of Property Rights & Mortgages

In Europe, it may be hard for millennials these days to get on the property ladder, but at least the mortgage system is at their disposal. A local student, Allan, told me that, to get yourself some land in Mpumalanga, you have to collect all the money you’ve been saving under your floorboards and take it all to the local ‘Induna’, or Chieftain. He then allocates you a piece of land that you’re permitted to use, yet don’t officially own.

Consequently, with no legal guarantee of the safety or ownership of your land, there is no incentive to invest more than the bare minimum for your family’s shelter. As a result, people live in short-term shacks or “cinderblock houses”, often without built-in plumbing. If one were to take their chances by building a lavish home, it would be financed through savings, as mortgages are not available. To illustrate the extent of their non-existence, the students I interviewed were completely oblivious to the concept of mortgages. Even though they were intelligent individuals that understood trigonometric functions and outsmarted me in chess, they were completely oblivious to the concept of mortgages.

Lack of Incentives

Most inhabitants in the area work as sugar cane farmers. Conventional sugar cane farming systems consist of land owned and operated by locals in an open, liberal market. However, locals are contracted by large corporations that assign them to a tiny plot of land. With no sense of ownership or profit sharing, these farmers have no incentive to better themselves. They do not feel the need to invest in machinery, improve efficiency or improve their performance, as the outcome of their yield does not impact their fixed income. Consequently, farming techniques remain relatively primitive. RCL employs 1,600 sugar cane farmers, each subjected to a minuscule lot of land to ensure their bargaining power is nonexistent.

Absurd Education System

When I interviewed students about their government, cringe overcame their face and they found difficult to come up with anything nice to say about their schools. The one I visited was kept in an appalling state. Yet, the physical state of the school could be excused due to a lack of funding. What cannot be excused is the attitude of teachers and the management system in place.

Headmasters/mistresses are not allowed to choose their own teachers, or have any control over the culture of their school. Teachers are assigned and are almost never dismissed; their performance is entirely unaccounted. Students explained how teachers repetitively do not show up, and even the most dedicated students can’t be expected to apply themselves when left alone in a room with 60 teenagers. A reformed, more accountable education system would undoubtedly change the prospects of this community.

A local student, Allan said that to get yourself some land in Mpumalanga, you have to collect all the money you’ve been saving under your floorboards and take it all to the local ‘Induna’, or Chieftain.

The students, nevertheless, remain hopeful and ambitious as they explained their intentions to return to the region after their university education to apply their skills and expertise to the community. Unfortunately, the student loan system is equally farcical. The NSFAS is the initiative that most of the students depend on to send them to University. It awards loans only to the very highest academic achievers. Further, the initiative pays the students in May, whereas the academic year starts in January. Students must self-fund their accommodation, tuition and expenses for the first 5 months, as  a number of students who were trying to secure funding to attend University the next year explained to me.

Of course, these 4 reasons only scratch the surface of Mpumalanga’s long-term issues with some of the reasons being symptoms of other problems. Is the root of this broken community its inefficient, unaccountable educational system? Why haven’t effective performance-based incentives been provided to farmers yet? How can safety threats be eradicated through legalities?