JOHANNESBURG -- Women screamed, but the crowd of South Africans desperate for a chance to study kept pushing at the university gate. Tuesday's stampede killed a mother who had accompanied her son to an in-person application day at the Johannesburg campus, and two other people were seriously injured, officials said.
Thousands of young South Africans and their parents had begun gathering at the University of Johannesburg campus on Monday to seek admission. Space was limited – some 11,000 people were expected to vie for as few as 800 spots – a symptom of a larger crisis in South African education and perhaps contributing to a sense of desperation Tuesday. Many would-be applicants had only learned they were eligible for further study after getting results from national high school final exams last week, and university classes start next month.
Desmond Mlangu, a prospective student, said he witnessed the "traumatizing" scene, with women screaming and people continuing to push. He said those at the back of the crowd did not seem to realize what was happening at the gate.
Tendai Nembidzane, a final-year business student who is head of the university's student council, said he saw the dead woman's son crouching near her body. Nembidzane said student council members later took the young man to their campus office to be comforted. University of Johannesburg vice chancellor Ihron Rensburg said the young man and others affected by the stampede would be offered counseling.
The trouble erupted shortly before the gate was scheduled to open at 8 a.m. Hours later, shoes and other debris were strewn at the site. People remained in line, still seeking to study.
Roelof Hugo, the university's security chief, said his department would work more closely with police on crowd control to prevent problems like Tuesday's stampede. Rensburg said his staff had been preparing for crowds since the university experienced a similar application surge last year.
"You can do your best," Rensburg said. "But things can go wrong."
Across South Africa, universities are under strain as prospective students seek a better life as professionals in a nation beset by high rates of poverty and unemployment. The government hopes to expand its universities over the next decade.
"It is a systemic problem," Judy Backhouse, an education specialist at Johannesburg's University of the Witwatersrand. "It's insanely difficult to address."
Backhouse said reforms in the early part of the century saw training colleges designed under apartheid for black South Africans absorbed into universities. The goal was to improve the quality of education for blacks, but the result in some cases was that schools in black areas were closed down.
"The initiative was good, but the outcome has been bad," Backhouse said in an interview.
Those at the University of Johannesburg this week were seeking late admission. The late admission process was closed soon after the stampede, three days earlier than originally scheduled. Regular admission closed in June. University officials said between 4,000 and 6,000 people applied before the process was closed.
The university saw overall applications increase by some 20,000 this year over last to more than 85,000 and expects to enroll nearly 49,000 undergraduate and postgraduate students this year.
Rensburg said the crisis was further complicated because many young South Africans who were applying for university places should instead be continuing their studies at vocational colleges and other institutions.
Blade Nzimande, minister of higher education, told reporters after Tuesday's stampede that late applications could be banned. He also said authorities were considering centralizing the application process across the country and would work to provide better counseling and information to help students make education and career choices.
Rensburg's university has four campuses scattered across Johannesburg, including one in Soweto, the famed township set aside under apartheid for blacks and still overwhelmingly black and poor. The university prides itself on creating opportunity, with low fees, some programs more commonly found at technical colleges and a policy of accepting students who might be rejected elsewhere because of low grades. It is one of the few universities in South Africa to accept late applications.
The Union of South African Students said in a statement that government officials should move quickly "to build more universities and introduce free education." The youth wing of the governing African National Congress made a similar call.
Unemployment hovers around 36 percent, but soars to 70 percent among young people.
Sbahle Mbambo,a 17-year-old from Springs, a small town east of Johannesburg, arrived at the university with a blanket Monday morning. She spent the night in line, huddled on the sidewalk outside campus. She left Tuesday afternoon with a promise she would hear by the end of the week whether she had been accepted to a special journalism program that offered students with poor high school grades extra classes to help them catch up. She said the crowds at the University of Johannesburg showed how eager young South Africans were to grasp opportunities apartheid had denied their parents.
"Everyone in this country wants to be educated," she said. "They want to be independent, and to get proper jobs."