What did we learn from the Ellis Park disaster?

What did we learn from the Ellis Park disaster?

Last week marked the 15th anniversary of the Ellis Park disaster. However, apart from a moment of silence observed at many football matches around the country and a small ceremony at the venue itself on Saturday, the anniversary largely went unnoticed. But what about the health and safety lessons we learnt?

On 11 April 2001, 43 football spectators died and 150 were injured in stampedes that occurred from poor crowd control at Ellis Park stadium in Johannesburg. Wikipedia describes it as ‘the worst sporting accident in South African history’. While the subsequent inquiry shielded any official from criminal or civil liability, I still believe that calling it an ‘accident’ is, 15 years after the incident and with the findings of the Ngoepe commission of inquiry in the public domain, is a travesty of justice. More worrisome is the fact that with each match going by, it seems that lessons learnt from the past are increasingly being forgotten.


A disaster that was long in the making

The incident at Ellis Park came exactly 10 years after a similar incident at the Oppenheimer stadium in Orkney where 42 spectators died at a football match. That match was played between South Africa’s biggest football teams, Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs, the same two teams that played on 11 April 2001. Ellis Park stadium management, the clubs as well as the custodians of the game, the South African Premier Soccer League (PSL) could have learnt from this event but 11 April 2001 proved that they didn’t. Ellis Park stadium itself has also had its fair share of incidents since its opening in 1982. A cup-final in 1986 was attended by over 100.000 spectators in a stadium that was designed to hold 60.000 maximum. That match went without incident, but two years prior to the dreadful day, soccer fans had clashed in the same area at the stadium that turned out to be deadly on 11 April 2001. The response by SAPS and security officials turned out to be inadequate. The incident was investigated and a report was submitted. In the report the investigators recommended, amongst other things better training of stadium security and improvement of communications. Hardly any two-way radio’s were available to the officials and a telephone line at the Venue Operation Centre (VOC) at the stadium proved to be non-existent. When the Ngoepe commission, which was established to investigate the 2001 disaster, queried the Ellis Park stadium CEO about the lessons they had learned from this investigation, the CEO at that time responded by saying that he had not read the findings of that incident. How or why this CEO has never been charged with contravening section 16 of the South African Occupational Health and Safety Act (Act 85 of 1993), baffles me. Section 16.1 states that ‘every Chief Executive Officer (CEO) shall, as far as is reasonably practicable, ensure that the duties of the employer are properly discharged.’ The Act goes on to state that (16.2) ‘A Chief Executive Officer may assign any duty to any person under his control, which person shall act subject to the control and directions of the Chief Executive Officer’ however section 16.3 of the Act states that ‘the provisions of Section 37 (Acts or omissions by employees or mandataries) shall not relieve the employer of any responsibility or liability under this Act’.


Ngoepe inquire observations

Under the South African Football Association guidelines for high-risk matches that were used that day the responsibility for spectator safety lies with the home side (Kaizer Chiefs), the Premier Soccer League and, to a lesser extent, Ellis Park stadium management. It is interesting to note that, according to these rules, Ellis Park stadium is the least to blame yet the incident made headlines and is still remembered as being ‘the Ellis Park stadium tragedy’.

In his final report following the Ellis Park disaster, Judge Bernard Ngoepe concluded that overcrowding, an ill-timed announcement that the stadium was full, the use of teargas, and unruly spectator behaviour caused the incident. Although he hardly mentioned any names, Ngoepe pointed at the absence, or poor cooperation between various stakeholders as cause for the incident. His report stated, amongst other things:

  • Match attendance was poorly forecasted,
  • Officials had failed to learn lessons from the past,
  • Role-payers failed to clearly identify and designate areas of responsibility,
  • An overall command of the joint operation centre was absent,
  • FIFA and SAFA guidelines had not been adhered too,
  • Tickets had been sold at the venue and seating had been unreserved,
  • Corruption on the part of certain members of the security personnel was reported,
  • Dereliction of duty on the part of certain security officials,
  • Failure to use the big screen to show the game to spectators still waiting to enter the stadium.
  • The public address system had been inadequate,
  • The Public Order Policing Unit had failed to react timeously and effectively.


During his investigation Ngoepe learnt that on 11 April 2001 close to 120.000 spectators had managed or were about to get into the 60.000 seat capacity stadium. Yet only 1 232 security personnel, including members of the SAPS, five ambulances, 15 medical personnel, two doctors and paramedics were on standby. To make matters worse, injured fans had to be ferried to hospital by helicopters as ambulances had difficulty getting into the stadium. Police officers from Soweto eventually responded to the desperate plea for assistance, but battled to reach the stadium because of traffic congestion. The officers responded after the commander of the public order police unit had called several times for stand-by personnel to be sent to the stadium only to hear that none could be reached. All the Ellis Park CEO had to say was that ‘their disaster management plan should also have been broken down into more detail. ’We had a plan, but it did not work as it should have,’ he stated to Ngoepe. At least he admitted his shortcomings while the league and the club were less forthcoming. Justice Ngoepe concluded that the professionalization of safety and security staff and that pre-event planning should be taken more seriously.

Fast forward to 2010

The Ngoepe commission did not draft legislation, but limited itself to suggesting the framework, objectives and some of the aspects which would need to be covered in the bill. With this in mind the South African government introduced the ‘South African Safety at Sports and Recreational events Act’ (Act 2 of 2010) in the run up to the 2010 FIFA World Cup. This act provides measures to safeguard the physical well-being and safety of persons and property at events held at stadiums, as well as venues or along a route. It does so by providing for accountability of event role-players, the establishment of measures to deal with safety and security at events as well as by providing for accreditation of role-players, access control, event ticketing, safety certificates and the appointment of inspectors for venues, and many other important measures.


The Act is an interesting read, particularly in light of the country’s desire to become a desirous destination for the hosting of major (international) events. It even makes provision for those who do not adhere to the Act. According to Section 44.2a of the Act, a person convicted of an offence in terms of this Act is liable to a fine or to imprisonment for a period not exceeding 20 years, or to both a fine and such imprisonment.


The Act was tested for the first time several months after its promulgation when South Africa hosted the international football tournament. While the spectacle was hailed as a success, many incidents were observed that justify the claim that South Africa has not learnt the full lessons from the Ellis Park tragedy. The failure to have spectators seated according to the ticket they had bought (one of the recommendations Ngoepe had made) left particularly fans from overseas frustrated. Many had bought expensive tickets only to find South Africans taken their prime seat. As the police was reluctant to intervene, claiming they had no authority inside the stadium, many international fans complained bitterly. Police seemed to have forgotten that ‘failure to take the lead’ was part of the build-up that led to the 2001 incident.


As the 2010 FIFA World Cup was used by various organisations to stage their protests, not to mention the fans that were disappointed by their teams, unruly behaviour was reported at various World Cup stadiums. At the Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban, an upset fan even managed to invade the pitch during the semi-final between Germany and Spain. The same happened at FNB stadium, just before the start of the final and in full view of all royals and dignitaries. The fan was stopped only half a meter short of grabbing the 2010 World Cup trophy. He had managed to enter the field only seconds after the trophy was placed on a pedestal and minutes before the two teams playing the final would head for the field. The penalty both offenders have been handed is, however, unknown.

On the downturn?

Since the 2010 FIFA World Cup has come to an end, several incidents reported at stadiums indicate that (occupational) health and safety is still not entirely embraced at sports venues around the country.


In the 2013 ‘Kings Park incident’, former British Marine Brett Williams was kicked to death following an altercation with other rugby fans after a match. Two years later, a Kaizer Chiefs fan was shot to death by police in what is known as the ‘Port Elizabeth stadium incident’. It is believed that the fan had joined other fans in a pitch invasion.


In the exact season that marks that 15th anniversary of the Ellis Park incident is being plagued by incidents are taking place at stadiums across the country. With football giant Kaizer Chiefs struggling to defend their title for a consecutive year, fans have increasingly become frustrated with the performance of the team. On two occasions they were seen throwing items at their coach and team while they were leaving the pitch of their home ground, the FNB stadium.


Violent behaviour is not limited to fans of Kaizer Chiefs. In February this year the Premier Soccer League (PSL) reported the ‘Orlando stadium incident’ when fans of Orlando Pirates clashed with fans from Bloemfontein Celtic. Several weeks later I witnessed myself the poor response by officials when a student managed to enter the pitch at the Bidvest Wits stadium. By using the sole gate that leads to the pitch. Several officials failed to grab the student on several occasions and it took a player to tackle the fan before she could be removed from the pitch. The ‘Bidvest Stadium incident’ left officials fuming.


The common denominator of the incidents mentioned above are not the clubs involved, nor the type of incidents that take place. The common denominator is the linkage of the venue name to the incident and the severity of the tarnishing of the reputation and the reputation of security officials and providers involved.

Where to start making a change?

Theoretically speaking the South African Safety at Sports and Recreational events Act’ (Act 2 of 2010) provides a good framework to ensure health and safety in the venue. But, like everywhere else, it is the human factor that is the weakest link. It is my view that they are still overstretched and inadequately trained while insufficient attention is given to the developments that can affect the match of the day.


Security at venues is made up by a combination of officials provided by the league, (outsourced) security officials on behalf of stadium management and representatives of various law enforcement agencies. On match day they are all expected to be at the venue early in the morning and they will only leave hours after the game has been concluded.  By that time many will still have to travel a long distance or for a long time. Those unlucky enough will also have to deal with the absence of public transport by the time they can leave the venue.


One such security official confided in me that he had slept only two hours after he had officiated at an evening game at the Royal Bafokeng stadium in Rustenburg before he had to report for duty at the Bidvest Wits stadium in Johannesburg the very next day. The R 200 he was paid per game was the sole income to provide for his extended family but it begs the question, how focussed he was while performing his duty the second day.


All security officials at venues are provided with the compulsory basic health and safety training. In my view it is good for them to know the basics, but I consider it as being insufficient to deal with the bigger picture. Being a sports fan myself, I watch many games in stadiums and on TV. Especially ‘the Soweto-derby’ can expect my (professional) attention as this game is known to be a crowd-puller of note. The game is predominantly played at the 97.000 seat FNB stadium near Soweto. It is the only venue in the country that can answer the huge demand for fans to attend the match.

Despite being a world-class facility, it still baffles me to see how fans are still allowed to sit in the staircases of the lower tier while higher up in the stands few empty seats can be seen. This either means that more fans still manage to enter the stadium than capacity allows for, or access restriction is still badly policed. One of the reasons 120.000 spectators tried to enter Ellis Park stadium on 11 April 2001 is the fact that (security) officials were known for being willing to assist anybody willing ‘to pay extra’.

Knowing that FNB stadium is equipped with modern technology that counts and checks all the tickets of fans coming through the turnstiles, I suspect the problem is caused by the latter. But the few security officials posted at the top of the staircases are clearly insufficient to stop fans from entering that particular section. Seeing the packed lower tier and fans sitting in the staircase I dread to think what would happen in case of an emergency where the stadium has to be evacuated immediately.

 Lukewarm response to incident investigations

An internal league investigation in the most deadly disaster in South African football history prior to the Ellis Park tragedy, the one that took place in Orkney in 1991, already recommended that stairways, access ways and landings should be kept clear at all times’ and that due to the ‘fanatical support that Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates enjoy, it is essential to employ adequate numbers of security personnel.’ It seems, however, that this recommendation 25 years after it was made and close to 100 dead football fans later, is still falling on deaf ears.

So does the advice by Justice Ngoepe to manage the crowd outside the stadium. At one of the pre-game security meetings in the run up to the 2001 incident, Ellis Park stadium management warned how it would make sense to have a large mobile screen to mollify people but it would have cost implication for Kaizer Chiefs. Chiefs refused to pay their half of the R50.000 cost and the idea was abandoned.

While most stadiums in South Africa have screens in and around the stadium these days, it still seems to be difficult to herd fans into the stadiums in time. Stadium managements have, for the past few years, been pleading with fans to come early yet they fail to stimulate them in doing so by providing pre-match entertainment. Where clubs in countries like the United States use entertainment as part of the total match-day experience, South African clubs and stadiums still provide fans little reason to arrive early, placing much strain on security officials to ensure all fans are checked and ushered to their seats in time, before the start of the game.

 Improvements made

It must be said that improvements have also been made. Especially the decision to put the highest-ranking officer from units of the South African Police Services or South African National Defence Forces in charge of overall security operations at big matches, is hailed as a big improvement. This change is significant in light of the tragic events of 11 April 2001 because the PSL, Chiefs and Ellis Park management had sharply diverging views on who was supposed to be responsible for security that evening. Existing Joint Operation Centers have been refurbished and expanded and are manned at all times while modern communication means allowing officials into the Venue Operation Centre to communicate and act immediately. They now also make use of high-tech systems like CCTV systems and software that monitors spectator behaviour. Event organisers, stadium managements and law authorities also increasingly try to clamp down on the sale of (illegal) tickets in the stadium vicinity as well as the sale of tickets during match day while a three-tier security approach makes that no vehicles or fans without tickets will able to get close to the venue during match day.


Thing have certainly changed since 11 April 2001, but so has society and the magnitude of the game. The Soweto Derby is firmly part of the top-10 biggest derby’s around the world and rivals those of Manchester United vs Manchester City, AC Milan vs Inter Milan or even Barcelona vs Real Madrid. With the developments at South African venues kept in mind the televised Ellis Park disaster stands as a shocking reminder of how South African football repeats mistakes of the past. From the 1991 Orkney tragedy, to the violent incidents at Ellis Park in 1998 and ultimately the Ellis Park tragedy, faulty organization and inadequate security have played a larger role than unruly spectator behaviour in causing disorder, damage and deaths at sports grounds. Some say that, given football organizers’ failure to learn lessons from their history, it is hardly surprising that South African fans maintain a cavalier attitude in relation to stadium safety. If this is true and spectator behaviour at football matches 15 years after the Ellis Park tragedy are anything to go by, I hate to say that we have another incident in the making. It is already sad that families of the victims claim they have been forgotten. It would be disastrous when we have to come to the conclusion that the health and safety lessons learnt, have also been forgotten.


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Posted date: 26th Apr 2016
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