John first heard of cryptocurrency three years ago, when the teenager came across slick YouTube videos and Facebook posts of other South Africans claiming to have become wealthy overnight with bitcoin.
Inspired, the then 14-year-old downloaded a trading application, lied about his age in order to set up an account, and began buying and selling crypto with his savings.
He soon made small profits, but as the crypto market slumped this year, John lied again – to his parents, who did not know about his trading activities – to get money to cover his losses.
“I will pay it back when I get rich,” said John, who lives in Langaville Township, a low-income neighbourhood east of Johannesburg. He asked that his last name be withheld.
John, who likes to wear designer T-shirts and jeans, said dozens of teenagers in his township also trade cryptocurrencies – hoping to emulate the influencers and self-styled crypto experts they follow on YouTube and Instagram.
“I now coach other boys in the community,” John told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a park where he often hangs out with his friends, who also trade in crypto.
“All you need is a cell phone, a bank account and a few bucks, and I will show you how to make the big…