South Africa's lethal scrum for university places

By Kate Forbes
BBC News, Johannesburg

Image source, AP

Shoes, blankets, torn T-shirts and papers are strewn around the entrance to a campus at South Africa's University of Johannesburg, where an early morning stampede killed a mother who was queuing with her son.

The scene reveals the desperation of many South Africans to get an education.

In the past 24 hours, the university has taken 9,000 late applications, competing for around 800 places.

"I fell and lost my footing, I couldn't breathe," said one student, who did not want to give her name for fear of jeopardising her chances of a university place.

She was among other students who had been there all night queuing swapped stories of their experiences.

Showing us a mark on her cheek, she said: "I had someone tread on the side of my face. I was crying, completely not knowing what to do or how to get out."

Johannesburg police have confirmed 22 others were injured in the stampede. University officials say the application procedure has now closed.

Lifeline for poor students

Professor Ihron Rensburg, the University of Johannesburg's vice-chancellor, told journalists afterwards: "We're deeply saddened and I'm personally anguished about this."

The university is one of the few to hold these "late application" places.

Media caption,
The BBC's Andrew Harding: "They started pushing as the gates were opened, there was a scrum" (Stampede footage courtesy of Adrian de Kock from The Star, South Africa)

These places were a vital lifeline for poor students, Prof Rensburg explained, as they do not receive help or advice on how to apply from a public school system which has very low expectations for its mainly black pupils.

Late applicants often come from areas where students are not expected to continue their education after high school and so may have missed the deadline.

Others do not expect to pass, so when they do, they rush to try for a place.

"We must do everything possible for a community that simply doesn't have access to information," Prof Rensburg said.

However, in a hastily arranged press conference, South Africa's education minister said that the government was considering halting last-minute university applications after Tuesday's tragedy.

"It's something that we are seriously considering. We think that the price we are paying is too much," the minister, Blade Nzimande, said.

Adam Habib, another vice-chancellor at the university, said: "If we close it down, we close hope for the most desperate of people."

Even if black families can afford the fees, they may not have the culture of saving for university, or even the confidence that their child will make it.

"So when they do get the results, and realise they can afford it after all, they suddenly rush to see if they can get into university," he added.

The problem is not limited to Johannesburg. Further south, the University of KwaZulu-Natal had 60,000 applications for 9,000 undergraduate level places this year.

South Africa's universities are hugely oversubscribed, with more than 180,000 high school graduates failing to find a place this year.

The education minister has promised previously to increase the number of places but critics of the government point out a lack of action to match those words.

One father at the scene told the local news that the governing African National Congress (ANC), which celebrated its centenary over the weekend, needed to solve this crisis fast.

"The celebrations are over now. We congratulate them. But it's time to go back to work. A black child needs an education," he said.

Great divide

Before the end of apartheid in 1994, universities in South Africa were admitting very small numbers of black students.

But there is no doubt that the system was built to educate the few, rather than the many.

Professor Shadrack Gutto of the University of South Africa has watched the system change since 1994.

"Many universities now have more black students than white," he says.

"But white students have a family history of university attendance, and so they are guided by this and by better schools.

"That's why you don't see any white students sitting on the pavement. So in law it may be equal, but in practice, it isn't."

Around one in four people in South Africa are unemployed, and students in line on Tuesday were certain this was one of the few routes to success.

After the stampede and before the application process ended, I asked Phumzi, 22, from Soweto, if it was still worth the risk.

"I think it is worth it. It's my only chance," she said.

"I am even walking on my feet with no shoes. I lost them in the stampede but I'm not giving up."

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