Ellis Park 2001: Crowd herded ‘like cattle going to the dip’
Football must not forget the 43 dead but the public needs to stand up for its rights too
It is 18 years since the Ellis Park disaster on April 11 2001 when 43 people died and 158 were injured in SA’s worst sporting tragedy.
No one was held culpable for the stampede when too many spectators tried to squeeze into the stadium for a midweek derby between Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates – herded, as one said, like “cattle going to the dip”.
It is an event that attracts but a passing footnote on each anniversary. It stands in stark contrast with the drive for justice fueled by the anger of the families of the victims of the similar disaster at Hillsborough in England in 1989, saying much about the apathy of SA society.
A total of 96 Liverpool fans died at the stadium in Sheffield where they had gone to watch their club in a cup semifinal. The 30th anniversary of the tragedy is next Monday.
Campaigns through the years, driven by the bereaved families, mostly from poor, working class backgrounds, have kept up the pressure on authorities to find the truth and bring to book those to blame.
In recent years there have been inquiries into stadium control, a second coroner’s hearing after high court action to quash the first, and apologies from the prime minister. In recent weeks there were the prosecution of the police commander who was supposed to be in charge that day, and a criminal conviction for the secretary (general manager) of the club hosting the match, who did not do his job properly.
There are at least 11 different sites where memorials, either gardens or plaques, have been put up to remember the dead in an example of civic campaigning that finally served up some justice with the people’s voice refusing to be muted.
At Ellis Park there is a scraggy plaque, difficult to find. For the victims of the SA tragedy, it is unlikely anyone will ever be held culpable. This despite proof that academic Peter Alegi, in his dissertation on the tragedy, describes as “fundamental organisational flaws, contempt for spectator safety and incompetence and dereliction of duty on the part of security personnel”.
The infamous commission of inquiry, conducted by Justice Bernard Ngoepe, fell short of properly investigating culpability and was quick to absolve the major role players, allowing them to escape answering for their actions – or lack thereof. Ngoepe’s report found no criminal or civil liability, thereby shielding the Premier Soccer League, home team Kaizer Chiefs and Ellis Park management from prosecution. The deaths, then, of 11-year-old Rosswin Nation, whose dad surprised him with a ticket to the game and who hurriedly put some clothes on top of his pyjamas; or 13-year-old Siphiwe Mpungose, who went to watch his favourite team with his dad and younger brother, will have been in vain.Public apathy means the Ellis Park disaster is fast fading from memory and the growing complacency of football authorities is all too evident on the rare occasion a PSL match attracts a capacity crowd.All the basic principles of ensuring a safe stadium are ignored – blocked stairwells create a major risk, unmanned gates are dangerous, and atrocious traffic control leads to spectators arriving late and trying to force their way in as they did at Ellis Park in 2001.There is mounting evidence of a return to the callous approach that characterised that night in Johannesburg 18 years ago.It is largely as a result of the disregard for spectators – and an overall poor fan experience – that crowd sizes continue to diminish in the PSL and are now beginning the threaten the sanctity of the product.
It is all because football bosses have forgotten where their money comes from. There would be no TV rights or sponsors’ cash if it were not for the decisions to go to the stadium made by so many who remain undervalued and treated as mere “cows”.Football must not forget but the public needs to stand up for its rights too.