20 years on, Kaizer Chiefs remember the Ellis Park disaster
JOHANNESBURG – April 11, 2001; This remains one of the most devastating days in the history of the Soweto derby between Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates after 43 people lost their lives at the Ellis Park Stadium as a result of stampede before kick-off and during the game.
The stadium which has a capacity of 60 000 was occupied by more than 120 000 spectators on the day, according to a report from a police spokesperson. In addition, there were about 30 000 people who were still outside the stadium when the match started.
As a result of the overcrowd, 29 people died inside the stadium, while 14 died outside the playing arena. And in exactly 20 years since the tragic incident unfolded in Doornfontein, Chiefs' then assistant coach Donald "Ace" Khuse remembers the day as if it was yesterday.
“They said the game would be delayed by 15 minutes, and again, they added another 15 minutes. We then asked ourselves, ‘what is it that’s happening?’. All of the sudden, we then heard screams while we were still in the dressing room,” Khuse somberly recalled.
“One of our security guys went out to check what was happening. They spoke to the coach who didn’t want the players to know what was happening. But he told me, 'hey, it is bad outside, people are dying as a result of stampedes around the stadium'.”
Muhsin Ertugral who was Chiefs’ coach at the time said: “It’s really terrifying to remember what had happened. It’s a heart-breaking memory for all of us to remember what happened that night. Nobody expected that such tragedy would ever happen.”
He added: “In the weeks building up to the game, we felt how much the match meant to the people and how important it was. I remember during the warm-ups, walking to the pitch, saying to Steve Komphela ‘I’ve never seen such a huge a crowd’.”
Never Forget The Fallen— Kaizer Chiefs (@KaizerChiefs) April 11, 2021
11th of April 2001, 20 years ago, was a day that left a very black mark on our history and it was a very dark day for South African football.
To the 43 supporters that never made it home, may your souls continue resting in peace.#EllisPark43 pic.twitter.com/iFMXLKfULP
Chiefs and Pirates were both chasing for the league title respectively. But more supporters flocked inside the stadium after Pirates’ Benedict Vilakazi equalised two minutes after Tony Illodigwe became the first Nigerian to score in the derby for Chiefs in the 15th minute.
“Before the game, we went to check the field and the crowd was amazing,” then Chiefs' captain Patrick Mabedi said. “We saw a lot of people coming in and the vibe was amazing. I think that made people who were outside excited and they were trying to get in.”
Mabedi added: “They tried to force themselves to be part of it as well. By doing that, they ended up pushing and stamping on each other. We just heard from authorities that were injured people and the game had to stop. After a few minutes, it’s where we heard that lives were lost.”
Chiefs were in their 31st year of existence. Chairman Kaizer Motaung was in the presidential suite when the tragedy unfolded right before his eyes. And he remembers how what was supposed to be a beautiful day of football took a turn for the worst.
“Once the game started, where I was seated, I could see there was a commotion taking place in one part of the stadium in the corner, which ultimately resulted in the stoppage of the game,” said Motaung who commemorated the 20th anniversary of the incident.
“Security and everybody was called upon to attend to the situation, where a stampede had occurred as a result of people forcing their way and coming into the stadium. It’s very sad that a beautiful day turned out to be a very sad day for the families who lost their loved ones.”
Two decades down the line, an almost identical devastating scenario nearly panned out during the 2017 Carling Black Label Cup friendly match between the two Soweto giants after two fans died and 19 were injured outside the 90 000-seater FNB Stadium.
Motaung, though, is pleased with the security and safety measures which have improved since the Ellis Park Stadium disaster, saying, "we had to change a lot of things and make sure in future we don’t again experience an event of this nature any more".