JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - One person was killed and about 20 injured in a stampede on Tuesday by students trying to register at the University of Johannesburg, reflecting desperate demand for higher education among the poor in Africa’s largest economy.
Thousands of potential applicants had lined up for days for about 800 slots at the university, most of them from poor families but who had scored high enough on national exams to be considerated for higher education.
The application process has been open for weeks but many poor students do not have Internet access and could not apply online. The crush was caused by students pushing their way into offices on the final day for applications, university officials said.
“What led to the frenzy was a desperation amongst the students because they see entrance into university as their only chance,” said Ruksana Osman, a professor of education at the University of Witwatersrand.
The person killed was a mother of a potential applicant, university officials said, while emergency services official Nana Radebe said about 20 people had been injured, at least three of them seriously.
“When we opened the gates this morning, we had this unfortunate, this very sad situation, where there was simply an unbearable crush on the front entrance, or front gate,” university Vice Chancellor Ihron Rensburg told a news conference.
Applicants, often with family members, have camped out by university gates for days hoping to gain entrance to one of the largest schools that allows for last-minute admissions.
Zamantungwa Kumbo, 19, and her mother, clutched the bedding they brought to campus and waited for a decision.
“I passed out, and lost my shoes,” Kumbo said. “People were kicking and running over me.
“I wanted to leave, but my mother convinced me that it was more important to stay, to try to find out if I was admitted.”
Applicants, protected by police, were hoping for a spot at university, seeing it as the only way to escape poverty. Unemployment among youth is about 50 percent and those without a degree have few prospects of finding a reasonable job.
The incident comes just days after the ruling African National Congress said at a ceremony to mark its 100th anniversary it wanted to open wider “the doors of learning”.
Education has been one of the largest segments of state spending for years, accounting for about 20 percent of the budget, but it is seen as grossly underperfoming with South Africa’s schools near the bottom in global rankings.
Under apartheid, all but a trickle of the country’s black majority was shut out of higher education. When white minority rule ended nearly 18 years ago, the gates to universities were opened to all.
The Higher Education Ministry said it is considering an end to the last-minute applications that led thousands to flock to the university’s campus.
The ministry has been criticised for being too slow to adapt to the new realities after apartheid and to provide enough vocational training in a country which the government says suffers from a lack of skilled workers.
“I know what will happen to me if I don’t get into school. Look at what I am exposed to. I am from the ghetto. Without school, I will get into drugs and I’ll never find a job,” said applicant Eddie Ncube, 18.