President Mbeki launches inquiry into soccer tragedy

President Thabo Mbeki on Thursday launched a Judicial Commission of Inquiry into the crowd stampede which left 43 people dead during Wednesday night’s Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates match at Ellis Park.

Mbeki told reporters Transvaal Judge President Bernard Ngoepe would head the commission of inquiry into the fatal crush outside the stadium midway through the game.

“It was shocking news. We don’t want any recurrence of this kind of incident anywhere in the world. It is therefore important that every element of the tragedy be looked at by the commission,” said Mbeki, who watched the disaster unfold on television at home.

A high-powered delegation met earlier at the PSL offices to “assess and share information that could help shed further light on the events that led to the tragedy”.

Soccer managers and analysts blamed the deaths on a lack of crowd control, shoddy match organisation and greed.

“This tragedy is a culmination of years of near misses,” said Rob Moore, club chairman of Ajax Cape Town.

The government, the two football clubs involved and the Premier Soccer League said in a statement after an emergency meeting in Johannesburg they would give full support to the commission.

Sports Minister Ngconde Balfour said he did not expect the disaster to affect South Africa’s bid to host the 2010 World Cup, which has been promised to Africa.

“People have to look at it from a global perspective. As much as we don’t want this type of thing to happen, it has happened before in other countries and it has not affected their chances of hosting any major international tournaments.

“As much as we like to minimise such events as happened last night… I don’t think it should be seen as a negative towards the bid for 2010,” he said.

Mbeki too said he did not expect the tragedy to undermine South Africa’s bid to host the World Cup.

“I can’t imagine that people who make the decisions on these matters would use one incident like this to decide the venue. It’s a bad tragedy. It’s bad that many people lost their lives. But I don’t think that out of this we can then say let’s not give the World Cup to this country,” he said.

South Africans woke up to newspaper and television images of bodies lined up on the green turf of Ellis Park stadium.

Witnesses told how men, women and children were crushed to death as thousands of fans broke down gates and surged into an already packed stadium midway through a national league game.

Security guard Petrus Saayman told how he saw a teenage girl trapped by the neck between the bars of two gates as fans locked out of the stadium toppled a fence and rushed in.

“I saw a girl stuck inside the gates and as they pushed I think the girl’s neck was broken.” Saayman said he pulled her lifeless body from the gate.

Provincial police chief Sharma Maharaj told reporters blame did not lie with his 200-member match crew, saying their responsibility had ended at the gates of the stadium.

“My officers’ function was one of crime prevention outside the stadium. We were not gate-keepers or ticket collectors… the question of crowds entering the ground was not our responsibility,” he said.

A policeman said tempers flared when league-leaders Orlando Pirates equalised at one-all about 30 minutes into the first half. The crowd toppled a tall gate, trapping several people underneath, and spectators trampled across it to get in.

Former President Nelson Mandela said in a statement officials should ensure there was never a repeat.

“This incident should not divide us now but rather bring us even closer to ensure that this horror story does not repeat itself,” he said.

In 1991 42 people died in a stampede during a match between the same two teams in the mining town of Orkney.

Meanwhile, PSL chief executive Robin Petersen announced that all weekend league matches would be postponed until further notice. The Confederation of African (Caf) Cup Winners’ Cup match between Chiefs and USST of Reunion scheduled for Ellis Park has also been postponed to next Wednesday.

Petersen confirmed that 43 people, and not 50 as reported in some parts of the media ,lost their lives during the stampede and that 160 were injured with 89 admitted to hospitals in and around Johannesburg.

According to Petersen, a total of 57 140 tickets were sold, with 10 730 tickets pre-sold at Ellis Park and the Kaizer Chiefs Village. Petersen added that an estimated crowd of 15 000, with and without tickets, had gathered outside the perimeter of the stadium.

Chiefs managing director Kaizer Motaung said it was well-publicised that tickets would be pre-sold and that supporters needed to learn to buy tickets in advance and get to matches in time.

“Our people are not used to the idea of buying tickets in advance, and we need to inculcate into them the importance of buying tickets early,” said Motaung.