Blame denied

Gunther Simmermacher reports on a culture of buck-passing in the aftermath of South Africa's latest disaster

Never again, the football establishment of South Africa vowed after more than 40 fans died at a match between the country’s most popular clubs, Soweto teams Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs. Fast forward a decade, and the well-meaning platitudes – voiced after 42 fans were crushed to death in the remote town of Orkney on January 13, 1991 – proved less than prophetic. On April 11, 43 more fans died outside Ellis Park stadium in Johannesburg during the Chiefs v Pirates derby.

Kaizer Motaung, managing director of Kaizer Chiefs (nominally the home side), has admitted that ticket sales at the stadium were a fundamental cause of the disaster. Motaung and the Premier Soccer League have denied that tickets in excess of Ellis Park’s 65,000 capacity were sold but have been unable to clarify why, in that case, spectators should have packed the aisles while more ticket holders were still trying to enter.

The authorities should have seen the tragedy coming. The surprise is not that Ellis Park happened, but that it took so long to happen. Two years ago, before a match involving the same clubs at the same venue, fences were broken and cars were damaged when fans could not gain access to the stadium. In the same year, fans arriving late for a league match between Chiefs and Santos in Cape Town’s Athlone stadium forced access by scaling perimeter walls, triggering a stampede. By luck, only a few injuries were recorded.

A World Cup qualifier between South Africa and Congo in 1997 was watched by 100,000 fans in the 80,000 capacity Soccer City stadium near Soweto. Officials acknowledged afterwards that just one fight or carelessly discarded cigarette could have sparked off a chain of events that might have left hundreds dead as spectators blocked every exit.

Two days before Ellis Park, the Johannes­burg Star announced tight security for the Soweto derby, which Pirates needed to win to be all but certain of clinching the league. Organ­isers expected 60,000 fans, but with the stadium packed beyond capacity before kick-off, tens of thousands of fans, many with tickets, were still jostling to get in. According to eyewitnesses, chaos ensued when Gate 4 on the stadium’s east side was broken down and fans rushed inside.

South Africa’s president, Thabo Mbeki, has appointed a judicial commission of inquiry to establish the causes of the disaster, make recommendations on how to prevent such tragedies in the future, and determine potential criminal culpability. One hopes the judge will receive more forthright answers than the media did in the aftermath of Ellis Park.

Pirates chairman Irvin Khoza, possibly the most powerful man in SA football, blamed the Chiefs. “If it’s a home game for a team, then that team takes full responsibility,” Khoza said. He should know. Khoza is the chairman of a committee formed last September to draw up a policy document on security at league games. The committee, which also includes Chiefs boss Motaung, has yet to meet.

Motaung disingenuously divested himself of blame, claiming Ellis Park’s management was largely responsible for the arrangements. However, the control of ticket sales was Chiefs’ responsibility, as was the lamentable choice of the venue. After the tragedy, Motaung bragged on TV that Chiefs had exceeded Ellis Park’s capacity before, in a cup match against another Soweto side, Moroka Swallows.

Asked whether the match should have been played at the larger Soccer City stadium, Mo­taung replied: “Irrespective of where the game was played, nobody could have pre-empted the tragedy.” Fate is a convenient excuse for what some would see as gross negligence.

From WSC 172 June 2001. What was happening this month