It is bitterly ironic that the scene of one of South Africa’s greatest sporting triumphs should also be the scene of one of its most appalling sporting tragedies.
Six short years ago the images that flashed around the globe from Ellis Park were of a jubilant young nation: Nelson Mandela celebrating with Francois Pienaar as South Africa won the rugby World Cup. Last week, the images came from the other end of the spectrum: officials starting to apportion blame as medics tended to the injured and dying after a stampede among fans left 41 dead and nearly 100 hurt at a soccer match.
In the past eight days, fingers have been pointed at the Premier Soccer League, at Ellis Park officials, at Kaizer Chiefs, whose home game it was, at the private firms with the task of providing security at the ground, at the police, at the SABC for not showing the match live, even at the fans themselves. A disproportionate number of women and children were among the dead: the young and the weak were trampled as our “me first” culture applied. No one is prepared to accept responsibility for the tragedy, but we all bear some guilt.
The 1995 Springbok triumph was a watershed for rugby. The government took the initiative and insisted on change. Among the sticks applied was the ruling that there would be no more international games without rapid transformation in the game; among the carrots was the concession that rugby could keep its beloved Springbok name and emblem.
The government must act again after events at Ellis Park. The commission of inquiry, to be headed by Judge Bernard Ngoepe, into last Wednesday’s tragedy must go beyond finding who was responsible for the loss of life. It must be given powers to make new rules about how professional soccer is organised in South Africa.
As is explained elsewhere in this issue, we must learn from the Hillsborough disaster in England, when nearly 100 soccer fans died in a similar crush. No one was jailed as a result of the subsequent inquiry, but the recommendations of the Taylor report were put into law and changed the face of English soccer.
We need the Ngoepe commission to make a similar report, and the government and soccer authorities to have the will to enforce changes. The new rules must be strict, and the penalties rigorously and fairly implemented.
To ensure safety recommendations are implemented the government could threaten to ban international games or withhold its support for another World Cup bid. If clubs cannot guarantee the safety of fans, big games should be played behind closed doors and, if a team regularly flouts the new rules, it should be thrown out of the league. These are tough decisions for any politician, but the dead and bereaved deserve no less.
And those fans who cause trouble will also have to change. Pushing and throwing missiles on to the field are the ugly face of our soccer and must be stamped out.
The terrible scenes from Ellis Park last week must never be allowed to happen again.
The decision by the National Director of Public Prosecutions, Bulelani Ngcuka, to press criminal defamation charges against Martin Welz, the publisher of noseweek, has to be ill-advised. No matter what noseweek wrote about Ngcuka, or the other men accused of attending a meeting at Tony Yengeni’s house to discuss the arms probe, nothing can justify a criminal defamation prosecution.
If Ngcuka and Co feel wounded, of course they have the right to lodge a civil defamation suit, although we would never encourage a public figure to do so. A criminal prosecution is an altogether different beast it smacks of a heavy-handedness unbecoming to an office supposed to uphold the rule of law. It is an outdated offence that carries with it the implicit threat of jail. And, to compound matters, we have Ngcuka acting as complainant and prosecutor, pushing a charge that ordinary citizens would struggle to persuade the police to pursue. Ngcuka will, of course, now also provide Welz and his feisty magazine with some sterling marketing, courtesy of the taxpayer.
The case for Ngcuka’s treatment of the Pan Africanist Congress is less clear. It is the prosecution authority’s right and duty to investigate any allegations fully, and the subpoena is an important tool in the exercise of that duty. That said, it appears that his office is over-reacting to a tiny opposition party that, in this instance, appears to have been letting off a bit too much hot air. It strikes us as a case of taking a sledgehammer to a mosquito.
That is not to say that the PAC and its impressive mascot, Patricia de Lille, have not played a crucial role in propelling the impropriety of the arms deal to the top of the national agenda. This time, however, they appear to have got rather carried away in trumpeting the imminent demise of senior members of the government. If De Lille and her party do get out of line in spreading unsubstantiated allegations, it is for Parliament, not the forces of law and order, to reprimand them.
While Ngcuka has acquitted himself admirably and independently at the prosecution authority, he should be mindful of the impression that he is an African National Congress appointee. His swift action against De Lille sits uncomfortably with the tardiness demonstrated by the ANC-run ethics committee in Parliament where top party official Tony Yengeni is concerned.
By taking this tough line, Ngcuka’s office runs the danger of discouraging further public debate and further enterprising investigations by either opposition politicians or journalists, both of which have so far set the agenda where the arms probe is concerned.