One person was killed and nearly 20 injured in a stampede 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 considered 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," Ruksana Osman, a professor of education at the University of Wittwatersand, told Reuters.
University of Johannesburg vice chancellor Ihron Rensburg said a mother who had accompanied her son to the campus was killed in the melee, which started about 7:30 a.m. local time, about 30 minutes before the gate was scheduled to open, The Associated Press reported.
Emergency services official Nana Radebe said nearly 20 people had been injured, at least three of them seriously.
Desmond Mlangu, a prospective student, told the AP he witnessed a "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, told the AP he witnessed the stampede and afterward 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. Rensburg said the young man and others affected by the stampede would be offered counseling.
Hours later, shoes and other debris were strewn at the site. People remained in line, still seeking to study. Classes begin in February.
Unemployment among youth is South Africa is about 50 percent and many see a university degree as the only way to escape poverty.
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 ministry has been criticized for being too slow to adapt to the new realities of education after apartheid and to provide enough vocational training in a country which the government says suffers from a lack of skilled workers.
"One of the great challenges is to expand the range, not simply the number of institutions but the range of educational opportunities available," said University of Wittwatersand education expert Francis Faller.
"We have to sympathize and acknowledge that the hunger has an idealistic dimension, but also a hard realistic dimension of having no other avenues," Faller added.