A stampede broke out Tuesday as thousands tried to enrol at a Johannesburg university, killing one woman and injuring at least 20 people, university and police officials said.
Thousands of people had queued outside the University of Johannesburg after it announced it would accept late applications from those who missed an earlier deadline or who recently became eligible thanks to their exam scores.
When the university opened its gates at 7:30 am (0530 GMT) to begin letting applicants in, people in the back of the line started pushing, officials said.
“There was a simply unbearable thrust at the front. The outcome was we had one parent who was also in the queue that was crushed and passed away. Two other people are in a critical condition,” vice chancellor Ihron Rensburg told a press conference.
Footage on a local TV channel showed the area littered with stray clothing and shoes pulled off in the fray.
“I can confirm one dead and twenty-two were injured,” Johannesburg metro police spokesman Wayne Minnaar told AFP.
Aspiring students and their parents had been queuing outside the university since the early hours of Monday hoping to submit late applications. Many had brought umbrellas and chairs and camped there overnight.
South Africa’s national university system has room for some 150,000 first-year students this year. A further 180,000 high school graduates are expected to be turned away.
The University of Johannesburg said it had received 85,000 on-time applications for the 2012 academic year, up from 67,000 for 2011. It has places for 11,000 first-year students.
Rensburg said the university had decided to accept late applications in a bid to make sure poor black students were not excluded from higher education.
“We must do everything possible to a community that simply doesn’t have access to information to afford them this opportunity,” he said.
But Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande said his ministry was considering putting a stop to the late application process.
“It’s something that we are seriously considering that maybe we should not consider walk-ins,” he told a press conference.
“We think that the price we are paying is too much.”
South Africa has an official unemployment rate of 25 percent, and demand for university spots has far outstripped supply in the difficult economy.
In a country where blacks were largely excluded from higher education under apartheid, the fight for university places also has a racial dimension.
The crowds of people who gathered outside the University of Johannesburg hoping for places were almost entirely black.
“There’s a very racist discourse that tries to say people are not prepared for university, they shouldn’t get in, we shouldn’t be admitting them,” Graeme Bloch, an education policy analyst and visiting professor at the University of the Witwatersrand, told AFP.
“Hell, people are prepared to queue day and night to get in. They obviously are keen to get in. What we need is more places, not less students.”
There were no signs of the morning’s stampede on the campus by midday. Substantially smaller queues were moving in dribs and drabs through metal barricades.
Fanie Nhlapo, 19, said he had been waiting since 1:30 am to apply.
“I want to become an ambassador,” said the eastern Johannesburg resident, the son of two unemployed parents.
“I didn’t apply last year because the application fee was expensive (250 rand, about $30, 25 euros),” he told AFP.
“My dad did some recycling and raised the money for me.”