Where is the justice for the Ellis Park 43?

FOOTBALL supporters at the Soweto Derby match between Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates. | ITUMELENG ENGLISH/ Independent Newspaper.

FOOTBALL supporters at the Soweto Derby match between Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates. | ITUMELENG ENGLISH/ Independent Newspaper.

Published Apr 13, 2024


TWENTY-three years on and the memories are as vivid as ever –and to think I was not even at the stadium. I cannot begin to imagine what happens to those who were there when the anniversary of that dreadful day comes along.

April 11. It was a Wednesday back in 2001, and it is arguably the darkest day in South African football. At a venue that had over the years prior, and even later, brought many South Africans glorious joy (remember the 1995 Rugby World Cup triumph, and numerous Mainstay Cup finals), 43 lives were lost in a crowd stampede during the Soweto derby between Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates.

To go into the details of that disastrous night would be to underestimate your knowledge of the local game. Yet, as I went about my business on Thursday, the 23rd anniversary of the disaster, I could not help but wonder just what the families of the 43 are feeling; wonder if those bereaved families would ever find justice; wonder if the football powers that be feel any kind of remorse or compassion for those families. I wondered.

Of those families that lost loved ones, I got to meet the Tigerls. They are from Westenburg in Polokwane, my hometown, you see. And on Thursday, the temptation to call Simron and/or his sister Alice just to say, ‘You and your family are in my thoughts’ was strong. Their younger brother Danny was one of the stampede victims. Then I thought that a call could well open wounds that are probably still healing.

But could they be healing, really? How could they when there is yet to be anyone held accountable or even culpable for the death of their brother and those other 42? How could the wounds heal when both Simron and Alice have had to take on extra parenting duties for kids whose daddy was taken too soon from them? How could they when every football match reminds them of their loss?

Such has been their pain that Simron, a passionate Buccaneers supporter, has since quit going to the stadiums, as he told me in an interview a few years ago. His is more than pain; his is anger, and not doubt most of the bereaved families share the same feeling – anger at the football authorities for paying them what he felt was a pittance designed to shut them up.

And because they are not financially able to legally take on the might of the Premier Soccer League, the families accepted that pittance and moved on – well, move on from the fight and not really from the pain of losing a loved one at an event that was meant to have brought them joy.

That the Ellis Park disaster has been allowed to become a historical event without there being proper consequences is typical South Africa. Lives just don’t seem to matter much and justice is never really pursued, especially for ordinary citizens.

Surely we could learn a thing or two from the English, whom we so like to copy in matters football. The incessant fight to get justice for the 97 fans who died in the Hillsborough Stadium disaster on April 15, 1989 is something we should have had with regards to Ellis Park.

To the uninitiated, despite a number of investigations finding no fault with the football and police authorities of that day, some men and women just did not give up the fight. And nearly three decades later, in 2017, people were charged with offences including manslaughter by gross negligence, misconduct in public office, and perverting the course of justice for their actions during and after the disaster.

Of course, the circumstances of Ellis Park are not similar to those of Hillsborough and I am not at all suggesting that such charges be pursued. Yet there can be no denying that there were some people that day at the Doornfontein arena who were supposed to ensure that such a disaster did not happen, but they dropped the ball. And as the custodians of the game, the PSL should have been and must be made to answer for that loss of so many lives.

Damn, I probably should not have dropped out of law school, having tried to pursue it post-matric, for I would be legally fighting for the Ellis Park 43 now.

Instead, I suppose, all I can do is remind South Africa that innocent lives were lost that Wednesday night in the hope that some legal gurus out there will be compassionate enough to take up the case and try to seek justice for them.

It is the right thing to do, even if it is 23 years too late.

THREE-FIVE-TWO is the column published every Saturday in the Independent on Saturday, Saturday Star and the Weekend Argus.