Should we expect the worst in Twenty Ten?
Location: Johannesburg, South Africa
April 11, 2001, in South African football, is as traumatic a date as any. In fact, it is a date that is supposed to serve as a cautionary tale to the perils of football and the near-fatal devotion it attracts all over the world.
Yet, after the chaotic scenes during Nigeria’s friendly international against North Korea over the weekend, many observers will be left wondering whether South Africa learnt anything from the events of April 11, nine years ago. On that fateful date in Johannesburg, euphoria swiftly morphed into tragedy after 43 fans lost their lives trying to catch a glimpse of the famous Sowetan derby between rivals Orlando Pirates and Kaiser Chiefs.
It was a dark date that drew a judicial inquiry, caused much soul-searching in the young nation and even more relevantly, almost torpedoed South Africa’s bid to host the World Cup.
Quickly declared the worst sporting accident in the history of South Africa, the Ellis Park disaster served as a lethal witness to the catastrophic cocktail that an uncoordinated crowd and poor event management could brew.
As the horrific scenes at Ellis Park were beamed live on national TV to a captivated public, it felt a bit like driving past a train wreck. We knew the scenes unfolding were harrowing, but no-one could bring themselves to look away. The moral lesson of 30,000 extra fans trying to cram into the already full 60,000 capacity stadium should have remained imprinted on the nation’s psyche forever. Only it seems it was not!
If the events in Makhulong last Sunday are anything to go by, and they should be, then South Africa remains one mere match away from yet another chilling reminder of Ellis Park 2001. Situated in Tembisa, over an hour’s drive from Johannesburg, Makhulong bears the 12,000-seater Stadium that played host to Nigeria’s build-up friendly against fellow World Cup finalists North Korea.The Makhulong Stadium though, with its concrete terraces and lack of turnstiles, is far-divorced from those constructed for the World Cup.
Why the popular and religiously supported Super Eagles chose such a “remote and small ground” to host their final warm-up match remains in question. But as thousands of football fans stampeded the gates and crushed a luckless policeman in their attempt to access the stadium, one thing was vividly clear: staging such a match in Makhulong had been a criminally wretched idea.
Moses Idowu watched the carnage unfold from the main gate and he attributed the near-disaster in Makhulong to a typically African failure to plan with foresight. “This can only happen in Africa,” Idowu bitterly lamented. “Even conservative estimates must have prepared the organizers of this match for a relatively large crowd. Yet they hosted this match in such a remote and small ground.”
One starts to dismiss Idowu’s remarks as more evidence of lazy racial stereotyping until Idowu, bedecked in a Nigerian flag and clutching the world-famous vuvuzela, points out that the people outside the stadium outnumbered those allowed inside.
“This match should have been played in a bigger stadium in Johannesburg,” Idowu insisted.
His comments dovetail sharply those of Jamilah Iyabo, a female fan dressed in Nigerian colours but with nowhere to go. Iyabo arrived an hour before the game but was refused entry by security who insisted the stadium was full to the rafters.
“This is rubbish,” she said. “There are so many Nigerians in South Africa, this match was held on a Sunday and the tickets were free. Why then, was it hosted in such a small stadium? This was an accident waiting to happen. Look around and see how many people are stuck outside. Then look and see how few are inside.”
Over 20 people got injured in the repeated fracas that occurred outside the gates while Nigeria and North Korea did battle inside Makhulong. A few fans were left relieved and wondering how fatalities were avoided and the number of casualties remained so low given the human tide that impatiently tried to force its way into the stadium.
“It could and should have been worse, my friend,” Hassan Osuafor said. “It was a miracle that no one died. There were so many people, all convinced there were empty seats inside the stadium and all desperate to somehow get in despite security claims that it was full.”
Sunday Ibweke, a portrait of frustration alongside Osuafor added: “Matters were actually helped by the fact that this match was against North Korea, which had no supporters here. Imagine what would have happened had it been a match against an equally popular side?” It’s a rhetorical question that doesn’t bear thinking about.
When Ellis Park 2001 happened all those years ago, South Africans were incensed that the nation had failed to heed lessons from 10 years earlier when a similar catastrophe occurred at the 23,000 capacity Oppenheimer Stadium during a “friendly” between Chiefs and Pirates. Back then, the Oppenheimer had been overrun by some 30,000 fans who caused a mass stampede, killing 42 people including two children.
South African legend Lucas Radebe witnessed the Oppenheimer tragedy as a Kaizer Chiefs player and hoped safety would improve as a result.
“Things like this do happen and you do learn from them, especially in a country which always tries to get better,” Radebe said back in 1991. “Things will improve. This highlights some of the problems and hopefully things like this will never happen now.”
When Ellis Park 2001 happened, time proved Radebe wrong.
However, in an echo of the Leeds United icon, then-South African president Thabo Mbeki vowed that it was “important that every element of this [Ellis Park] tragedy be looked at so that we can take all the necessary measures to make sure that we don’t have this thing happening again”.
Mbeki was further emulated by the judicial inquiry of commission into the Ellis Park disaster, which authored a 130-page final report that issued red cards to all involved in the management of the match on the fateful day.
The report, released to the public on September 26, 2002, decried an appalling lack of efficient event preplanning, identified 14 strategic and tactical failures that contributed to the disaster and made “recommendations to prevent a similar occurrence”.
Which all begs the question: Were those judicial recommendations implemented “to prevent a similar occurrence” or was the report left on the bureaucratic shelves to gather dust?
After what happened in Makhulong, some might be tempted to go with the latter. Chief among the judicial inquiry’s proposals was the need for “accurate crowd estimates for proper event safety planning”. Cited as recommendation VIII, its implementation was conspicuous by its absence in Makhulong last Sunday. Though Hangwani Mulaudzi, the police spokesman at the scene, insisted the authorities had concrete security plans in place, he admitted that they were caught offside by the events before and during the Nigeria-North Korea friendly.
“I think this is one of those isolated cases where we did not anticipate the large number of people who would be interested in this game,” Mulaudzi confessed. He hastened to add, though, that because this was a friendly build-up, Nigeria, the designated hosts were responsible for the security. “World Cup security was not available at the match because it was a friendly. Nigeria was responsible for ensuring that some security was in place nonetheless.”
The South African police weren’t the only authorities rushing to wash their hands clean of the Makhulong mess. FIFA, accused in some quarters of granting free tickets to the match, instantly released a press statement distancing itself from the whole affair.
“FIFA and the [World Cup] Organising Committee would like to reiterate that this friendly match has no relation whatsoever with the operational organisation of the 2010 FIFA World Cup, for which we remain fully confident. Contrary to some media reports, FIFA had nothing to do with the ticketing of this game.”
The Nigerian Football Federation, however, refused to concede liability. “Nobody can be blamed for this,” NFF official Taiwo Ogunjobi said. “We did not have any choice of an alternate bigger venue. We are just thankful nobody died. The tickets were free and too many people wanted to get in.” The blame-shifting game will be made more heated by the fact that as public relations calamities go, Makhulong was an ill-timed one.
Just hours earlier, at the presidential guest house in Pretoria, Jacob Zuma had officially welcomed the World Cup with a triumphant, “We’re Ready” and police chief Nathi Mthethwa revealed that his charges were prepared to protect both VIPs and ordinary fans. The fact that a few other recommendations of the post-Ellis Park judicial report were glaring by their non-existence at Makhulong made a mockery of such assurances; the most obvious absentee being the one about motor-parking. When the judicial probe discovered that the Ellis Park disaster had been worsened by the traffic nightmare that denied fast access to emergency vehicles, its final judicial report urged stadiums to ensure sufficient parking as a prerequisite to hosting matches. Makhulong didn’t bother to comply with this on Sunday.
With limited parking around the stadium, surrounding roads were gridlocked; cars were parked haphazardly along all entry points with nary a traffic officer in sight.
Japhta Mombelo, an injured fan bleeding from a head wound outside the ground, revealed: “The crowd just overpowered me, I went down and people just fell over me. The police told me to stay around and they would organise an ambulance, but I am still waiting.”
The ambulances did eventually screech their way onto the scene.
That nothing so drastic happened to make emergency vehicles such a critical ingredient to the entire Makhulong bedlam was perhaps the day’s only saving grace. That, and the fact that Makhulong serves as a timely reminder to all stakeholders that, with the World Cup just five days away, authorities can ill-afford the luxury of leaving security and safety to the vagaries of chance again.
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