What happened to open minds, open hearts?

When thinking about what to write about this week, I was very hesitant to address anything protest- and fee-related. With so many news reports and comments flooding social media, I’ve almost reached my limit of opinion, never mind adding my own two cents. But how could I not speak about the biggest thing to rock our campuses in months?

There have been two things on my mind the last week and I’d like to share them with you. The first has to do with the negative reactions of so many people on social media. I’m in no way commending the violence or destruction, but I’ve been saddened by how quickly people have dismissed and rolled their eyes at a genuine issue. I know you want to go back to class (I really want normality too) and I know that free, quality education seems like an impossibly high mountain to climb (I haven’t much understanding of economics, so to me finding the finances seems scary), but these protests are the outcry of desperate people. These are people who constantly live with the stress we all feel now because they do not know how they will pay tuition or any other living expense through the year, let alone if they will return the following year when they (again) don’t have the money to register. It is not as simple as getting a job or working hard. South Africa has this awful catch-22 situation in which you need a tertiary education to get a job that will pay enough to support yourself and pay your tuition fees. Any menial job will require you to sacrifice precious study hours in order to make enough to just feed yourself. Don’t forget how unfair it is for your family to live in poverty back home while you manage to keep yourself afloat at university, should you magically find a job that pays enough (or even half of what you need). A student should never have to deal with this stress, ever. To those that keep telling me that tertiary education is a privilege, the fact that we need a degree to get a decent job makes it not a privilege, but a necessity.

And yet, there are so many people happy to sit back in their comfortable homes and tell these students that they’re entitled, lazy, asking the impossible, or not considerate of other’s (more important) needs. These protests have revealed a lot of corruption and injustice in our country: people feel offended that university students are protesting for free tertiary education when our basic education is a joke or people still sit without housing. These are also genuine issues, but really, if you were so upset about these things before, why have you not started your own protests? These students are making a move to improve something that currently affects them. They have not done as so many of us have done and accepted poor standards or high rates because “what else can you expect from South Africa” or “that’s just the way it is and we should grin and bear it”. In 2014 the government promised free education and they will not accept empty promises.

The least we could do as fellow citizens is open our hearts to this genuine need and appreciate that these students are acting on behalf of all current and future students. How has our default become pitilessness, indifference, coldness? I would love for my parents not to have to fork out thousands every year to pay for my degree. I would equally love never having to worry about tertiary education fees if I ever have children one day. One day when we do have free education, you too will be thankful for it.

That is why I have chosen to look at this situation, and all the other bad situations in the country, with a positive outlook. I will not be negative and dismiss them, but rather empathise with those that are struggling and add my voice behind those that need support and use this opportune moment to engage with others to create a plan. Because that is what we need – not a dismissal or acceptance of mediocre circumstance, but citizens willing to engage with each other and formulate a plan in unity and concern for each other and to demand better standards and a fulfilled promises.

This brings me to my second thought. In order to formulate a plan, we need to communicate with each other. I can’t say that anyone’s communication has been great in these protests. At times it feels like everyone is speaking past one another. Protesters don’t seem to have clear leaders and it has taken time to construct a concise memorandum (and even then I’m not entirely sure everyone agrees with it). The university has left us hanging every day for ages while we wonder whether campus will be open the next day or if we will have class. But, worst of all, the government has expressed very little interest in actually listening to student concerns. Telling students there is no money for free tertiary education is not engagement. If the ball is anyone’s court, I believe it is in the government’s – this moment is critical and ignoring student needs is not going to make them go away. Perhaps they’ve gotten used to be being unchallenged in the same way we have got used to dismissing genuine needs.

I know I can’t solve this problem alone and “free tertiary education” is not a solution in itself. We need a feasible, detailed plan and I believe there is one. But what we need first is a little more care and a little more conversation so we can move forward instead of becoming complicit in our roles as citizens.

Open your mind, open your heart

Michal.

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