The crush developed early on Tuesday after security guards at the South African university opened a small gate to admit applicants through the university clearing system.
As students and their parents pushed to get through the gate, some fell to the ground and were trampled while others were forced against the sharp metal fencing.
One woman died at the scene from head and chest injuries while three others were left in a critical condition. A further 17 people were treated for minor injuries.
Queues formed on Sunday and quickly stretched for a mile.
South Africa has an unemployment rate of 51 per cent among young people, and many see university as their only way to avoid joining the jobless.
The university received 85,000 applications for 11,000 first-year places. An additional 5,000 applications were then filed for approximately 500 overspill spaces.
Patricia Thulani, 18, from Pretoria, had stayed overnight and was close to the front of the crowd when the stampede happened.
“I fell over and some were trying to help me up but others just rushed over me. It was horrific,” she said.
“I was just praying—I really thought I was going to die. I kept thinking: ‘Why am I doing this?’ But I know why—we’re all here for the same reason.
We want good educations so we can get jobs.
“The police sent a van in through the crowd and I managed to get on top of the bonnet. If it wasn’t for that, I’m not sure I would still be here.”
Fiona Maila, 36, accompanying her daughter Thandiwe, said university authorities should have learned the lesson from a similar crush last year.
“We Africans always do things at the last minute, it’s part of our culture,” she said. “They really need to organise it better.”
Another woman, who did not want to be named for fear it would jeopardise the application she eventually managed to submit yesterday, was separated from her father in the crush.
“The security guards told us to form queues but people just refused to cooperate—they were climbing the fence and pushing at the main gate until it broke,” she said, her trousers caked in dust.
“We were told it was a first-come-first served basis so people were desperate. There are so few places that you worry you’re not going to make it.”
Her father, who had blood on his shirt, was just metres from the woman who was killed. “It was incredibly frightening,” he said. “People were piled on top of each other. We heard screaming and someone having what sounded like an asthma attack. I saw a woman fall down and later heard she had died.”
Fundiswa Hoyi, 20, said there appeared to be more parents than students.
“You would expect them to tell people off for pushing but they were the worst,” she said. “If the university had just divided people up into subjects, or had admissions on various campuses, this wouldn’t have happened.”
Dirk Hermann, deputy general secretary of the trade union Solidarity, said students were aware that their chances of getting a job were boosted from 50 per cent to 80 per cent with post-school education.
“The problem we have is that there are too many students with university degrees and not enough with technical qualifications in key areas such as nursing and artisanal work because our higher education colleges are dysfunctional,” he said.
Blade Nzimande, the Higher Education Minister, has announced an overhaul of higher education colleges. He added that he was considering banning walk-in university registrations entirely.
Police had restored calm among the 800 students remained in front of the locked gates hoping to register inside. Blankets, umbrellas, documents and abandoned shoes lay scattered around them.