Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Stampede a Snapshot of South Africa's University Crisis

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Stampede a Snapshot of South Africa's University Crisis

Article excerpt

In a strained higher education system, too many students are seeking too few places.

They lined up well before dawn, some driving from the deep countryside with bags of blankets and neatly packed sandwiches, to wait for the gates to a new life to open. They hoped for a shot at a coveted spot at one of South Africa's public universities, and with it a chance to escape the indignity of joblessness that afflicts more than a third of the nation. By morning, the line was almost two kilometers long.

As the gates were about to open at 7:45 Tuesday morning, thousands of students, many accompanied by their anxious parents, surged forward, desperate to win one of several hundred last-chance places still open at the University of Johannesburg. Amid shoving and screams, one woman, the mother of a prospective student, was trampled to death and several others were badly injured in a frantic scrum.

The stampede embodied the broad crisis in South Africa's overstretched higher education system as it struggles to extend to all South Africans opportunities that were once reserved for whites. It is a problem of grade school mathematics: Too many students are seeking too few seats at the public universities, which turn away more than half of their applicants, leaving few options for most high school graduates.

Not only that, the squeeze plays into a wider problem of unemployment among young people.

The youth jobless rate is nearly 70 percent, a staggering problem that even a college degree does not promise to solve. Adcorp, a temporary staffing firm, said in a recent report that there were 600,000 unemployed college graduates in South Africa.

The rush at the university's gates, two days after the governing African National Congress celebrated its centennial in a lavish, weekend-long party, underscored the deep frustration many people in South Africa have with the slow pace of progress almost 18 years after the end of white minority rule.

"There just aren't enough places for everybody," said Karabo Dihba, a 22-year-old would-be applicant who hoped to earn an engineering degree, standing amid the abandoned shoes, blankets and rubbish that littered the area outside the university's gates. "What are we supposed to do?"

Access to higher education for all South Africans was one of the most cherished goals of the struggle against apartheid.

The Freedom Charter, which formed the basis of the A.N.C. platform and South Africa's new Constitution, declares that "higher education and technical training shall be opened to all by means of state allowances and scholarships awarded on the basis of merit."

But like so many goals of the anti-apartheid struggle, this one has proved almost impossible to achieve for a government still struggling to provide housing, health care and basic education. …

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