The seven job applicants died during a 2.5-mile run in 92-degree heat in a football stadium in Pietermaritzburg, as part of a fitness test on Thursday and Friday of last week. Six of the men died from heat exhaustion and dehydration, while the seventh, who finished the race, allegedly committed suicide after learning he had not run fast enough.
The South African Press Association reported that more than 34,000 people applied for only 90 trainee jobs that were advertised. A little less than half of the applicants, about 15,600 applicants attended the fitness tests. An unknown number collapsed from the heat and were taken to hospitals.
The Daily Telegraph reported that the majority of applicants were young men between the age of 18 and 20. Unemployment among South African youth stands at some 40 percent.
However, Willies Mchunu, member of the Executive Council of KwaZulu-Natal’s Department of Transport, rejected calls for him to step down.
"It is premature to call for anybody to be penalized for this incident before the investigation is concluded," he said in a statement.
"Only after the investigation can we then determine whether anybody can be blamed, that is what justice demands."
In the meantime, Mchunu, a member of South Africa’s ruling African National Congress party (ANC), has suspended such tests for the traffic police while investigators probe the deaths.
"To us this is a tragedy and we don’t think any blame game will assist, Mchunu added.
“I have started a thorough investigation ... which I will then submit to the premier for his consideration to take the process forward."
An Inkatha Freedom Party official Blessed Gwala condemned the fitness tests that led to the deaths.
"What happened in Pietermaritzburg was a classic display of being power-drunk, to an extent treating ordinary suffering people as subhuman,” he said.
"No one in their right mind could in the first place short-list about 35,000 people for just 90 jobs."
IFP has called for Mchunu to quit.
The South African Communist Party has called for a formal commission enquiry to investigate the deaths.
"The party believes that whatever action is taken should be determined by the outcome of the commission of enquiry," provincial SACP Secretary Themba Mthembu said in a statement.
One of the men who died in the stadium was Lenny Nxumalo, a 28-year-old father of two, who collapsed near the end of the race.
His friend Brian Ngcobo told The Witness newspaper: “My friend was so determined to become a traffic officer that he ran his life out because he was such a dedicated person.”
Lindelani Kubheka, another applicant, complained to The Witness about the disorganization surrounding the race.
“We were starving and needed water, but the venue is isolated from fast food outlets, so it was difficult for many of us to survive the scorching heat without water and food,” he said in a hospital.
The Telegraph noted that a government job is highly desirable for young blacks, given that they are relatively well paid, stable, with an application process that “positively discriminates” in favor of blacks.