'Wonderful problem' turns into UJ tragedy

Johannesburg - Witnesses have told of the horror of a stampede at the University of Johannesburg's Bunting Road campus, during which a woman who'd accompanied her child to try for last-minute admission, was crushed to death.

Twenty-two people were also injured.

June Molora, from Vosloorus on the East Rand, described events as the most shocking thing she had ever seen.

She'd accompanied her grandson Kabelo Tabane to apply for an information technology course and.

"I was so shocked and I started asking myself what could have happened if it was me that was dead.

"The cause of her death may not have been intentional, but it is very sad to see someone losing her life while trying to build a good future for her child," she said.

She blamed the university for poor communication, saying no one had helped them find where to register for the first time.

Desmond Mlangu, a prospective student, said he witnessed the "traumatising" scene, with women screaming and people continuing to push.

He said those at the back of the crowd did not seem to realise 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.

He was later taken away for counselling.

'Wonderful problem'

The Democratic Alliance hit out at Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande in the wake of the tragedy.

The party claims that a lack of planning by Nzimande, who had witnessed similar instances of snaking queues by prospective students, is to blame.

Junita Kloppers-Lourens, DA spokesperson for higher education, said that when Nzimande had been asked about the flood of applicants last year, his response was that it was a "wonderful problem".

"The 'wonderful problem' has turned into a tragedy," she said.

"Last year he did not have a plan for the problem and has done nothing since.

"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," Kloppers-Lourens said.

National problem

Earlier, Nzimande was quick to absolve the university of blame, saying that the institution would not be punished, as this was a national problem.

He said that the higher education department was considering halting last-minute university applications after the incident.

"It's something that we are seriously considering that maybe we should not consider 'walk-ins'," he told reporters in Johannesburg.

"We think that the price we are paying is too much," he said he said after offering condolences to the family of the woman who was killed, and to the families of those injured

The department hoped to roll out a centralised admissions process, currently being piloted in KwaZulu-Natal, to avoid incidents such as Tuesday's, said Nzimande.


Nzimande expressed concern that prospective students did not have enough information on the application process and that Further Education and Training (FET) colleges were good alternatives for study.

He said some prospective students did not know what they wanted to study and this "clogged" queues because of "on the spot counselling".

But Kloppers-Lourens said many of the FET colleges were "dismal".

"Quite a few of our colleges need to be placed under administration," she said.

"That's the reason why pupils aren't interested in going there."

Unbearable thrust

Meanwhile, during the afternoon, the UJ notified prospective students that no more late applications would be accepted.

University staff handed out pamphlets notifying at least 3 000 people still at the entrance that the application process had closed.

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.

About 11 000 people were expected to vie for as few as 800 spots - a symptom of a larger crisis in  education and perhaps contributing to a sense of desperation on Tuesday.

Many would-be applicants had only learned they were eligible for further study after getting results from matric exams last week, and university classes start next month.

Thousands of people had queued outside the university 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.

3km queue

By early on Tuesday morning a 3km long queue had formed outside the university's entrance.

Applications for its four campuses - Auckland Park Kingsway, Auckland Park Bunting Road, Doornfontein and Soweto - were processed at the Bunting Road campus.

This was because many of the late applicants were not sure about what they wanted to study, so they felt it was unhelpful to send them to campuses which only offered specific fields of study.

Around 07:30 university staff said they would open the gates at 08:00.

"There was then a lot of movement," the university's vice chancellor Ihron Rensburg said at a press briefing.

"Young people were jumping over the palisade fence... there was a constant push from the back by about 500 persons on the gate."

The university's protection services felt that unless they opened the gate, there would be a significant crush, so it was opened.

"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," Rensburg said.

The university told the media that crowd control outside the campus was the responsibility of the police.

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