Mother killed in South African university stampede (South Africa)

By David Smith in Johannesburg

A woman has been crushed to death in a stampede for places at a South African university, a stark symptom of how the country is struggling to meet demand for education among the poor. Thousands of young South Africans and their parents had camped out for 24 hours at the University of Johannesburg to seek its precious remaining slots. Most were from poor families who learned they were eligible to apply only after receiving the results of their secondary school exams last week.

A melee broke out at about 7.30am. Ihron Rensburg, the university’s vice-chancellor, said: “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.”
A mother who had accompanied her son to the campus was killed, he said. “The situation was particularly tragic as the young man was inside the registration tent and had no idea that this had happened.” Three other people were critically injured and nearly 20 others hurt.
Witnesses told how the gate broke and people tried to clamber over the fence. Desmond Mlangu, a prospective student, said he witnessed a “traumatising” scene, with women screaming and people continuing to push.

Hours later, shoes, camping chairs and other detritus was strewn across the site. People remained in line still seeking to join the courses, which begin next month. Regular admission to the university closed in June, but some places remain open for late entrants. The application process has been open for weeks but many poor students do not have internet access and were unable to apply online.
The university said it had received 7,000 applications in the past 24 hours, of which only 800 would be successful. The gap is indicative of a strain on South Africa’s universities and of a national education system that experts say lurches from one crisis to another, representing arguably the biggest blemish on the African National Congress’s record in government.

“This is an absolutely tragic incident but it also shows the desperate situation of poor families, who see university as a way out of poverty,” said Salim Vally, the director of the Centre for Education Rights and Transformation at the University of Johannesburg. “It’s about race and class. These issues have not been resolved, 17 years after apartheid.” University offers an escape from the prospect of unemployment, which remains the fate of one in three South Africans. There are too many applicants for too few places. This year more than 180,000 would-be students will be turned away from the country’s top nine universities, the Times of South Africa reported on Tuesday, including about 74,000 at the University of Johannesburg alone. Their alternative is further education colleges and other institutions offering vocational skills, but many of these are poorly advertised and of inferior quality.

Rhoda Kadalie, an academic and executive director of the Impumelelo Social Innovations Centre, said the applications logjam was the result of universities closing down in December, a failure to computerise the process, and a continued shortage of universities in South Africa. It was also too easy to achieve the pass mark for admission, she added. “Too many students are allowed into university who shouldn’t be there. We have this warped notion that everyone in South Africa should be able to go to university, irrespective of their marks.”
Under apartheid, all but a trickle of the country’s black majority was shut out of higher education. When white minority rule ended, in 1994, the gates to universities were opened to all. But Kadalie believes efforts to increase the number of black students have backfired. “Because of affirmative action, a lot of coloured, Indian and white students aren’t admitted. In trying to be politically correct, they are holding students back,” she said.

Similar concerns have been raised by Jonathan Jansen, vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State. In a newspaper column last year, he described meeting a school leaver who, despite poor exam marks, was deemed to have fulfilled the minimum requirement for higher education.

“Slowly, slowly we are digging our collective graves as we fall into a sinkhole of mediocrity from which we are unlikely to emerge,” Jansen wrote. “This young (incidentally black) person did not achieve anything above 50% in her Senior Certificate results for any exam subject, but we tell her she can proceed to higher studies. What are we saying? That black students are somehow less capable and therefore need these pathetic results to access higher education?”

Education has been one of the biggest segments of state spending for years, accounting for about 20% of the budget, but it is seen as grossly underperforming, with schools near the bottom in global rankings. The University of Cape Town is South Africa’s sole representative, at 103rd, in the Times Higher Education’s list of the top 200 universities in the world. Dr Junita Kloppers-Lourens, the shadow minister of higher education and training for the opposition Democratic Alliance, said: “The situation at the University of Johannesburg is absolutely unacceptable. Last year the minister was asked about the flood of applicants and he said: ‘I see it as a wonderful problem.’ But today the ‘wonderful problem’ has turned around into a tragedy.

“The government has failed dismally in dealing with education. It’s absolutely criminal, what has happened under the ANC. It will take years to drag it out of the mud.”

Source: Guardian