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Last Tuesday morning, Gloria Sekwena was part of a 3-kilometer-long queue with her son Kgositsile outside the Bunting road campus of the University of Johannesburg. The gates to the campus were not yet opened. Campus security officials were getting nervous at the restlessness of the crowd and had decided to open the gates at 8 a.m. Less than 1,000 first-year places were available. The university had already allocated more than 10,000 of its 11,000 first-year places by November 2011. Suddenly there was a push from the back of the queue, a stampede ensued, and Gloria Sekwena was crushed to death. Another 22 people were injured, two fairly seriously.

In the hours following the incident recriminations came in thick and fast. Two charges were leveled at the university. First, many had suggested that the university had not planned for the event. Its processes and procedures had not anticipated the large numbers. But this is just not true. Confronted with huge numbers for last-minute first-year applications last year, the university overhauled its procedures for last-minute applications and registration. Registration was organized in the stadium in 2012 so crowds could be better controlled, and residents would not be unduly impacted. More staff had been employed. Applications and registrations were separated. Technology was enhanced and online registration was mainstreamed. Obviously more can be done and the inquiry appointed by the university will identify lessons. But for commentary to suggest that the university was administratively and managerially complacent is not only unfair but also patently untrue.

The second charge leveled at the university was about the irresponsibility of allowing walk-in first-year applications. Many universities do not allow for this, and many queried UJ’s rationale in this regard. But before we hasten to make judgments, should we not spare a thought for why the university allows walk-in applications? One of the mandates of UJ is to provide access to higher education for young men and women from poor and marginalized communities. We know that many in these communities do not apply as per the universities’ deadlines. This is not because of irresponsibility, as so many assume.

Rather, many of these young men and women do not anticipate passing the national final-year school examinations, so university education is not perceived as a possibility. But even when it is, they do not have the information base to determine what and where to study. Remember, our schools in poor communities, especially in rural settings, are in a crisis and do not have the capacity to serve as a conduit for information, let alone provide advice to their graduating students. The failure of poor people to apply, then, is not simply an individual omission. It is a result of the circumstances that they are mired in. Abandoning the walk-in applications process would have effectively meant snuffing out hope where it is most needed.

Clearly the stampede at UJ should provoke national reflection in South Africa. But if South Africans are to honor the memory of Gloria Sekwena, then it is necessary to have a deeper reflection of the societal dynamics that led to the massive numbers of people at UJ’s gates. It is important to recognize that the first thing the massive numbers of people at UJ indicates is the utter desperation that exists among poor people in this country. Higher education may not guarantee a job, but it is increasingly seen as a prerequisite to getting one, and enabling people to escape the grinding poverty that they and their families are mired in. But there aren’t enough postsecondary educational opportunities in the country. There are only 154,957 degree, diploma and certificate places in South Africa’s universities and universities of technology, for a final-year graduating cohort of 348,117. Should we then be surprised that last week UJ received an additional 11,000 new applications for under 1,000 places?

It is important to put this in perspective. UJ received as many applications in two days as the size of the total undergraduate population of the University of Oxford, or one and a half times the size of the total undergraduate student population of Harvard University. Clearly there is a desperate need for more postsecondary educational opportunities in the country. Unless the South African government dramatically expands the size of its postsecondary and higher education sectors, it will not only fail to address the structural societal challenges that led to the tragedy at UJ, but it will also not meet the aspirations of its citizenry. Neither will it position the country for the modern world. Across the globe, governments are dramatically expanding the size of their university and postsecondary educational systems, in order to create the human resources required for a more competitive, globalized world. Unless South Africa does so as well, it is likely to be left behind in the coming decades.

But the aggregate number of educational opportunities is not the only issue. South Africans also need to think about the kinds of educational opportunities created. Not only is it impossible, but it is also undesirable for all of the nation’s young men and women to be directed to universities. Many, if not most, should be directed to vocational educational opportunities in Further Education and Training (FET) Colleges, similar to community colleges in the U.S. Not only will this allow South Africa to absorb the existing 3 to 4 million young people who are in neither universities nor employment, but it would also create the space for accommodating the more than 50 percent of its students who currently drop out on the way to their final year of school.

The Department of Higher Education and Training (DOHET) is of course aware of this, and Minister Blade Nzimande has made the growth of the FET sector his major ministerial priority. But the numbers outside UJ suggest that young people are just not enthused at the prospect. Currently the FET sector has neither the credibility, nor the capacity to meet the legitimate rising expectations of South Africa’s citizenry. Given this, it is imperative that all sectors – government, universities, business, and labor – come together to build opportunities for all students. The collective prize is worth the effort. If South Africa succeeds in achieving this, not only will it address the skill shortages that afflict the country’s economy, but it will also create hope among a volatile constituency, thereby stabilizing its political and socioeconomic transition.

But even if the university and the FET sector become efficient, South Africa would still not avoid what happened at UJ unless it gets schools in poor and marginalized communities working, and career guidance within them functioning effectively. As indicated earlier, many of the country’s schools are not a source of information or advice on postsecondary educational opportunities. Until they become so, students, especially those in marginalized communities, will not apply in time, and will then again be forced to scramble only when the matric results have been released. Fixing career guidance in South African schools so that they are in a position to receive information from universities and FET Colleges about postsecondary educational opportunities and the financing of these, and can advise their graduating cohort about what and where to study, is essential to avoiding the last-minute rush that so tragically ended the life of Gloria Sekwena.

So if South Africans are to honor the memory of Kgositsile’s mother, it is imperative that they do not find glib answers to the development dilemmas the country confronts. It is of course possible for South Africa to address its challenges in this sector. Other countries, including developing ones, have done it. Even South Africa has demonstrated progress in areas like the provision of antiretrovirals for HIV-AIDS sufferers. But a precondition for progress is accurate diagnosis. This is the real challenge that South Africa confronts at this tragic moment.

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