US students too complacent with debt
South African student protests of tuition hikes end in triumph
Across the Atlantic Ocean and thousands of miles away from New Brunswick, students won a major victory after the nascent of their own revolution. In Pretoria, South Africa, more than 10,000 people gathered on Friday, as the culmination of nationwide protests to rally against plans to raise university fees. Students called for President Jacob Zuma to personally address their concerns at Pretoria, the city that holds the main seat of South African government. This was the largest single student protest since the Soweto uprising in 1976, a historical movement against South Africa’s apartheid regime, and participants represented the diversity of the country by cutting across racial groups and political parties. In the face of mounting public pressure, the president of South Africa agreed to freeze tuition fees for South Africa’s public universities.
Tuition had increased to rates that students and their families could no longer shoulder. Does this sound familiar? In the New York Times article, “South Africa Freezes Tuition Fees After Student Protest,” a student of the University of Johannesburg was interviewed and she recounted her distress. Her parents, who worked as teachers, were able to pay her tuition fees, but they would struggle to put her younger brother through college. She said, “That’s when we realized we’re being robbed here.” While one could argue that a South African person's situation differs from Rutgers students, her story is universal and palpably relatable to the experience of students at Rutgers, where many work part-time to offset the cost of high tuition and the dwindling support from the Office of Financial Aid.
Why did the rise in tuition strike a chord at the heart of South Africa, but students in the United States continue to endure the miserable state of being crushed by the collective $1.2 trillion debt? It is due to how the climate of our own country is characterized by the debilitating and intertwined states of complacency and fear.
People in the U.S. don’t think they’re going to have an effect if they act. Taking the activist community in the University as an example, it is the same handful of 30 or so people (in a school that has more than 30,000 students), who mobilize protests and sit-ins, work as watchdogs and raise awareness about issues of injustice — and the remaining students have difficulty getting past their own circumstances. Working for the common good or participating in a collaborative effort to change the egregious structural systems is indeed difficult and great energy must be put into addressing a grand issue only to marginally mitigate it. So in the list of people’s priorities, individual and immediate problems come first, such as working part-time to pay your own school fees, despite how efforts toward fixing collective problems could resolve individual issues for the many, such as standing up against the nationally exorbitant student debt itself.
In regard to individuals who do care and want to do something about issues deemed unjust, another barrier is the fear of being penalized for speaking out. Marching out in the streets and amplifying your voice to disseminate opinions and concerns means standing out, which in turn makes you vulnerable. There are many who admire the courage of David standing up to Goliath, but if this role means being blacklisted or if it compromises future employment, then it is no longer feasible.
But how long can we pretend that collective issues are too formidable to fix? Masses continue to complain about the same issues, yet address them through individual means. However, the political power of the collective is not equivalent to David, but instead creates another Goliath, that can effectively change institutions of injustice. Becoming involved in issues that directly affect your life does not always mean protesting in the streets, but it also comes in the form of large groups of people voting or writing op-eds or vying for seats in public office. Nothing will change without collective effort.
Nominally, Rutgers has been “Revolutionary for 250 years,” but today, students in South Africa know more about revolutions than we do.