Ellis Park disaster: 20 years later deadly Soweto Derby still haunts survivors
By MATSHELANE MAMABOLO
DOCTOR Zakes Motene will today begin a healing process he had put on the backburner for two decades.
"It's about time I went for therapy my brother," Motene says "We all need to."
The all Motene is referring to are his friends from varsity (MEDUNSA), the ones he was with on that fateful Wednesday night of April 11, 2001 at Ellis Park when a stampede led to the deaths of 43 people during the Soweto Derby between Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates.
While he somehow managed to survive despite being caught up in the stampede, Motene witnessed a dreadlocked lady die in front of his eyes.
As a final year medical student back then, he later found himself helping paramedics lifting injured bodies onto stretchers or dead ones on to the pitch. It was a traumatic experience, one that he has carried with him throughout.
While he has written about the experience in his book - The Journey - Motene has come to realise that he needs help.
"They say time heals all wounds," he said yesterday "But a wound of this magnitude never heals. A wound caused by death never heals. It's like a colic ulcer that becomes acute.
“Having lived through this for the past 20 years, I realise that it is like a shadow that walks with you everyday. Not a day has gone by without me thinking of what happened that night. We cope by merely suppressing it."
He has come to realise, however, that he cannot go on suppressing it anymore.
"We were a group of very close medical students that year when we went to Ellis Park. We were very excited going to the stadium but all that excitement turned into sorrow," Motene recalls that fateful night when they came very close to dying.
Though none in their group perished, they all witnessed people losing their lives around them.
"We never really spoke about what we experienced that night. And we all went separate ways because we were final year students then. But I know that the pain of Ellis Park remains raw for all of us. The other day one of the guys, George Phetla, reached out to me and we committed that we must do group therapy.
“Yes we are all doctors and we help heal people but we need healing ourselves. And I will use tomorrow (Today, April 11) as an ice-breaker, to reach out to all the other guys who were on that trip with us and check how they are doing."
Trauma, Motene has realised, never leaves.
"As a country, we experience a lot of trauma but we generally put it under the carpet. We did it with the TRC (Truth and Reconciliation Commission) and even with Marikana. And Ellis Park too. There are a lot of people in our country walking around with post traumatic stress. Most of them die desolate, painful, isolated and lonely deaths. I believe we need to do something about it. And it has to start with us fixing ourselves before we can help others."
Motene is aware that there are many who feel families who lost loved ones at Ellis Park deserved to have got way more than the R22 500 they received from the Premier Soccer League.
"I understand that. But it must not always be about money. Of course, with Ellis Park it would be nice if we could do something to help the children of those breadwinners who perished that day with bursaries for their education. And how I wish we were in a position to help out. I do, however, see those of us who survived that tragedy as the voices of those who perished that day at Ellis Park. And to be able to do that, we need to fix ourselves first, hence this decision to go for group therapy. And I think a good start would be for myself and my friends to make a trip to Ellis Park."
Motene is but one of many South Africans for whom today will be hard to bear, the day marking the 20th anniversary of the biggest football tragedy in this country.
Simron Tigerls lost his brother Danny in that stampede and says he has never been to a football stadium since having had to go look for his sibling at Ellis Park only to find him in a mortuary.
"My sister called me that night to ask if I was aware of what was happening at the stadium. I called Danny and when he did not answer I tried his friend whose phone was dead. I drove to the stadium but his friends said they don't know where he was. I looked at all those bodies that were laid on the pitch and when he wasn't among them I thought he had gone to family in Diepkloof."
But he hadn't.
"We checked the Joburg Gen hospital and he wasn't there either and I was relieved. But the doctor told me to go check the mortuary because some bodies had been taken there. I reluctantly went and that's where we found him. I was heartbroken my brother, he was so badly hurt on his face I didn't even recognise him. His friends spotted him because of his clothes - a Kaizer Chiefs tracksuit - and we found his wallet in his pocket and we knew through his ID that it was him."
Tigerls continues to feel that the families who lost their loved once were hard done by the PSL.
"They gave us a mere R22 500, my brother. Danny left behind four kids, how is that supposed to help them? He is lucky because we, as a family, have clubbed together to bring those kids up. Can you imagine how hard the other families who lost bread winners are having it? I believe something can still be done for the families of those who died at Ellis Park. The PSL must do something."