In the US we are so quick to use this “first world, third world” othering lens. I think the recent “Fees Must Fall” case in South Africa should be a catalyst to show people that the US, this “first world” nation, is also imperfect and is dealing with developmental issues that the rest of the world faces. Incredibly high tuition creates opportunity disparities. People from varying socio-economic backgrounds have a harder time getting in and staying in higher education because of the outlandish fees. In South Africa, youth led protests have brought a freeze on public universities’ tuition increases. This call for change is a lesson American youth could learn from, if we expect to see change.
Institutions across South Africa were expected to have between a 10%-12% tuition increase by 2016. These figures keep in mind the minority elite population and further the disregard of the lower income students. For the country’s small middle and upper class, the tuition raise isn’t much too fuss over, but for the majority of young people in South Africa, this is not something that they can’t watch happen. Youth lead protests against the fees increase have broken out around the country. On October 14th, students from Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg started off the protests. Rhodes University and the University of Cape Town followed. The protests began as peacefully attempts to get the attention of the institutions. They began to reach dangerous levels when police intervened and used excessive force to maim them.
I have friends and family in South Africa and wanted an insider’s perspective of what’s been going on. My cousin who actually goes to University of Cape Town (UCT) laid it out for me like this: The protests began at his school a few weeks prior. Students at that time had been protesting the university’s outsourcing of janitorial jobs. The school wanted to employ workers from elsewhere, which would in turn discontinue local staff from receiving certain benefits like sending their own children to the institution with subsidy. The protestors at his school then joined in solidarity with protestors from other universities to voice their concerns with the inconceivable tuition increase. They shut down the campus and occupied public spaces so they couldn’t be ignored. UCT responded to the protests by signing a court interdict which banned the students from demonstrating in this manner. The students became aggravated by this seemingly flippant disregard for their concerns.
The students then held a mass meeting, where many of them were arrested. The group of students my cousin was with marched down to the police station to demand the release of their peers, but no one was released. They then moved their demonstration to the parliamentary offices. With the support of students from Stellenbosch University and Cape Peninsula University of Technology and other groups of students, they occupied parliament. My cousin and other protestors were met with heavily armed police. They were tear-gassed and stun grenades were used on them.
I am from a Southern African country and used to live in South Africa for a bit of time, so it’s hugely important for me to keep up with the goings-on of the area. But I think this case is of great importance to the Clark community and youth across the US because we are in a similar situation. We are at a time in the US where investing in higher education directly means being owned by debt for the majority of our lives. For many, college isn’t even something people can conceive for themselves because of the insurmountable tuition costs. Speaking personally, my family and I have had to sacrifice a lot for me to attend and stay at Clark. It’s daunting thinking about the amount of debt that I’ll be whittling away at for years to come.
This issue finally has gained a bit of headway in the US. President Obama has developed a plan for two free years of community college. Some of the current presidential candidates have even acknowledged the extremely high tuition rates and are promising plans that will elevate the pressures of debt. Bernie Sanders, for example, is saying he will work to make public colleges tuition free, which is incredible! I would love to see this come to fruition. I know many of us would love to not have to worry about being hounded by Sallie Mae.
Socialists Alternative is one student lead organization that, among other things, is fighting for free education. They have chapters across the US and the world. Even in South Africa. After speaking to the Clark branch of the group, it sounds as though they are right there in solidarity with the protestors in South Africa. The manipulation of education as a tool to generate profit is something that’s going on globally. A direct quote from James Patin, one of the Socialist Alternative members is:
“Education ought to be free because an education is, for so many people, the only opportunity for a better life. When we make education a debt sentence, we say that only the rich deserve the chance to better themselves. When we make college free, we declare everyone equal, and put more power into the hands of the vast majority of people.”
These sentiments echo exactly what the South African youth are working for. Although the #feesmustfall campaign isn’t calling for free higher education, they are demanding an education that isn’t exclusionary by socio-economics. It’s unreasonable for school fees to be raised above the rates of inflation.
Because the youth in South Africa have banded together and refused to be silenced, their concerns have been heard. Now, time will only tell if their wishes for reasonable fees will be met. Will American youth follow in their footsteps?
(Feature image on top is from: http://www.pmnewsnigeria.com/2015/10/26/s-african-students-to-fight-for-free-education/)