Ellis Park disaster: A lesson to SA from Ghana
Just over 15 years ago, 43 lives were lost in the Ellis Park stadium tragedy. Weeks later, in Ghana, 127 souls perished in an eerily similar way. This year, SA and Ghana mourned together for the first time.
Nearly two weeks ago, two young South Africans travelled 8 500km into the heart of Africa to, for the first time, commemorate a tragedy that happened more than 15 years ago in their home city, Johannesburg.
Because of the Ellis Park disaster of April 11 2001, Ntlakanipho Zulu, 23, was rendered an eight-year-old orphan and Mmakgomo Tshetlo, 28, had to face life as a 13-year-old without a father.
In Ghana, they commemorated their loss with people like them, who had experienced a loss much like theirs. They’d never experienced anything like it before.
It took a Ghanaian man to bring them together; to meet each other and the victims of an even bigger stadium disaster in Ghana’s capital, Accra, where 127 people died on May 9 2001, less than a month after the Ellis Park tragedy.
Both of them say little has been done in South Africa to remember the Ellis Park tragedy, which claimed 43 lives. The surviving family members of the victims have never been brought together, and the Premier Soccer League (PSL) admits it doesn’t even know how to contact them. Zulu, today a Wits honours student in international relations, says this is because “the PSL doesn’t want to remember its mistakes. I think they are ashamed of what happened.”
By contrast, the Ghanaian May 9th tragedy has been commemorated every year and is still largely funded by Ghanaian businessman Herbert Mensah, who was the chairman of the away team, Asante Kotoko, on that tragic day. The big man (a Saracens rugby player in his day and today in charge of Ghana rugby) remains traumatised by the memory of carrying what had felt like an endless procession of lifeless bodies – people who suffocated against a locked exit gate in the crush of tear-gas panic.
Mensah has kept in touch with the families of the Ghanaian victims, even supporting them financially through fundraising and his own pocket, and religiously making the walk to the stadium with them every year on May 9.
At Ellis Park, there isn’t even a commemorative plaque. But in Kumasi, there is a big statue, much like the tribute offered by Liverpool for the Hillsborough Disaster of 1989. Last month, inquests finally found that the 96 UK football fans had been “unlawfully killed” by police in an act of mass manslaughter. It finally offered closure and a sense of justice to families who’d been lied to for years. It’s something that South African families may never get.
Zulu says, “After Ellis Park, nobody was held accountable for what happened. I think harsher consequences would have been justified. But a lot of time has passed now and I’ve made peace with it.”
That he lost both parents was coincidence piled on bad luck. “My mother was a Chiefs fan. My dad was just there to support her. He was a Sundowns fan himself.” Zulu says he’s a Bucs supporter himself, but he’ll never be able to bring himself to enter any stadium to watch a Soweto derby.
He had to be raised by his grandparents in the Duduza township on the East Rand and now hopes to enter the diplomatic service, with his big dream to work at the United Nations in New York. He’s a son any parent would be proud of.
The other South African who made the trip to Ghana, Tshetlo, saw her dad for the last time during the school holidays in 2001. She was raised by her “selfless mother”, to whom she pays endless tribute, and today she’s a producer at a radio station in Joburg.
She says the trip to Accra and Kumasi (where they met the king of the Ashanti in his palace and even wished him happy birthday) was a “wonderful, humbling and eye-opening experience”.
She says, “Mr Mensah has played an important role in the lives of the May 9th families as a provider and support structure for the families. I think, though, the most important role he has played is that of a father figure, something I haven’t had for 15 years.
“What I loved about the entire experience and, with the many activities that took place, was that it was about remembering and celebrating the lives of our loved ones – something I think we’ve never really gotten the chance to do in our own time and country.”
Though both Zulu and Tshetlo think there’s a lot South Africa can learn about how to honour the dead, Zulu says “it would be too little, too late now”.
At least, thanks to this Ghana trip, he finally met at least one other person affected by the Ellis Park tragedy and they will probably stay in touch now and comfort each other every April 11 from now on.
“I didn’t even know Mmakgomo and I don’t live that far from one another.”
Charles Cilliers, The Citizen, Johannesburg
– Additional reporting by Steven Tau