Dear Bab’Irvin, you’re probably asleep, safely ensconced in your bed right now. But, unlike you, sleep is a distant luxury for me tonight (Saturday). I’m instead consumed with anger, disappointment and regret. Trust me, it’s not because my team lost. Far from it.
You see, Baba, tonight my son and I got punished for loving the game of football. As I write this, I need to wash my itchy eyes. Teargas doesn’t play, you know. It has no friends.
In fact, I don’t even know if these are the after-effects of teargas or tears.
But perhaps before I wash my face I need to say a little prayer to thank God for sparing our lives. I hope no one died or got seriously injured during this, one of the lowest points in the history of South African football.
My son and I are guilty of a little crime that has until now been irresistible to commit: loving the game of football, and our club Kaizer Chiefs, so much that watching from the relative comfort of our humble home when they are here just always felt too wrong.
We have always found it unthinkable to pass up the unmatched exhilaration that comes with witnessing live all the drama as our club scores a goal; when a “keeper” makes a great save; a player misses a chance or makes a great pass; or seeing someone reduced to a confused and bewildered stooge by an opponent’s deft skill.
Since its inception, Moses Mabhida Stadium has hitherto been our happy place, a public amenity that has always made me feel immensely proud to be a Durbanite. People bring their children here to share special moments, as they did once again tonight. It’s where some of us derive our entertainment and get to escape from all our troubles, if only for a few hours. Such is the magic of the atmosphere in a football match sometimes, which can’t be compared to the relatively bland experience of watching from TV.
But coming to the stadium? That’s history now. We will not be setting foot at Moses Mabhida Stadium or any of the local football theatres again.
Not after we were forced to inhale teargas and literally run for our safety – clutching each other’s hand – in the face of a potential stampede at the end of the Nedbank Cup semi-final clash between Kaizer Chiefs and Free State Stars earlier tonight.
Baba, I’m just tired of the utter disdain and contempt with which your administration has, for a long time, been treating people who love the beautiful game.
Before inhaling teargas tonight, we had witnessed a full-on fight between thugs masquerading as football fans on the stands.
They were in colours that suggested that they share an allegiance to the same club in Gold and Black, whose roots can be traced back to Phefeni. As the kerfuffle unfolded right before their eyes, a group of people in neon-jackets who left home under the pretext of being security guards looked on in a nauseating mixture of cluelessness and nonchalance.
After what seemed like an eternity, a bunch of men – some heavier than others – who left home today bluffing everyone that they are police, strolled towards the situation, didn’t do much, and disappeared almost as quickly as they had arrived.
During the second half, as it became clear that there was no coming back for Kaizer Chiefs, three groups of people started banging the short but thick metal gates behind Itumeleng Khune’s goal in a manner that made for quite a noticeable thud.
They did so interchangeably, which made it sound somewhat rhythmic. But the violent intent was unmissable. The sound clearly hypnotised those who were calling themselves security guards tonight, for all they could do was fold their hands and look on.
Across the stadium, an army of people in blue uniform that made them look like the police, gathered in the vicinity of the tunnel, where now-former coach Steve Komphela was located.
The closer the game edged towards full time, the more impetus the thuds got.
When referee Daniel Bennet blew for full time it opened the floodgates to sheer mayhem.
The scene was Mexican wave-like. The marauding crowd surged forward while the players, officials, referee, alleged security guards, purported SAPS and ostensible Metro Police officers scurried into the tunnel like a rodeo cowboy with a raging bull in hot pursuit.
In the ensuing melee, some sorry excuses for humans climbed up the goalposts while others tried unsuccessfully to tear the net, which surprisingly held firm. But not so the chairs, which were ripped out and thrown around the stadium. Ditto the corporate banners, including one written KC Mobile.
It became a right-royal free for all, with anyone and everyone either delivering or receiving a beating.
On the right flank not far from the centre line from where we were seated, a person who was supposed to be a security guard lost his footing and hit the deck. A blizzard of feet and fists rained on him.
Suddenly, the players’ tunnel burst open. Out came a number of human beings in blue uniform who might probably become police one day, accompanied by a few who might have previously described themselves as security guards. They ran back onto the pitch and gave chase in a fruitless bid to nail their moving targets, who disappeared back into the stands.
One of the striking things about tonight is that there was no Putco Mafani-sque voice of reason on the PA system to ask the people to calm down and – if it was not already clear – desist from the needless havoc that they were wreaking.
Within minutes of the full time whistle, the stadium looked like it had been hit simultaneously by a tornado and an Indian Ocean tsunami.
At some point things seemed to have quietened down… what journalists call an uneasy calm.
In trepidation, my son and I started making our way out of the stadium.
There were bangs all around us, including those made by big, green rubbish bins as they were thrown against the metal gates of food stalls, by people who spewed all manner of expletives.
And then it came.
Without warning, the air quickly turned angry and unbreathable. Teargas. Oh, teargas. Friend of no-one.
I’ll never forget the terror and confusion on my son’s face as he momentarily struggled to breathe after inhaling the teargas. He had never been exposed to it.`
The scene felt like something out of the No Escape Film starring Owen Wilson and Pierce Brosnan: a large crowd of screaming, panic-stricken people fleeing an alien force.
I grabbed his hand and we ran back in the direction we had come in. Like on so many other occasions for me at a soccer stadium, a stampede felt like a possible reality.
At some point during our run I remarked to him that “ngiyaphila” because I could keep up with him and he chuckled. It worked only to minimal effect.
Fortunately, we made it out of the ramp and came all the way down, past Virgin Active and Cuba Lounge.
But that was not before someone had shouted “Vaaaala. Iphara!”, which marked the chasing of a street kid, who eventually suffered a mass beating for reasons that we never got to establish.
Near uMngeni Road, some guys brandishing hammers from the back of a bakkie, vowed that they will be “Back for Steve Komphela”, the beleaguered Chiefs coach who, as it turned out, would go on to announce his resignation a few minutes later, after a torrid and barren three years.
Too little, too late. But that’s a story for another day.
By the time we finally made it to the car I had finally made up my mind. I’m not going through this ever again.
From the events of earlier tonight, it is clear that not much has changed to prevent another stadium disaster in this country.
The inertia and inefficacy of the law enforcement authorities in the face of an unfolding crisis had sent a clear message to the unruly spectators: you can do this thing and get away with it. It typified for me why so much is wrong with this country.
While there’s not much that can be done to correct the behaviour of the typical, wayward South African lout who calls himself a football lover – many of these uncouth people come to the stadium already drunk – there’s a lot that the administration of the Premier Soccer League can and should do.
You can start by recognising hooliganism as a real problem that afflicts the local game and stop treating it. You can’t be failing outright to punish clubs whose thugs cause damage to fellow humans and to property – despite there being video footage – while fining others R250 000 for fans’ unruly behaviour, only to make them pay just a fifth of that.
You also need to completely change your approach when it comes to physical security. At the moment we have nothing. The foot soldiers are clearly poorly trained, if at all. They are certainly poorly paid too. They are also impatient and can’t help someone who is trying to find their way to a suite or specific part of the stadium. But I bet you, someone somewhere is making a fortune.
It can’t go on like this.
Baba, you owe it to the memory of Rosswin Nation, the 11-year-old boy and the 42 other people who perished in 2001 and their families, in what has come to be known as the Ellis Park Disaster, to make our stadiums safer. You owe it, too, to the other 42 people killed in a stampede at Orkney Stadium in 1991 and their loved ones. (May their souls rest in peace.)
Until there is tangible evidence that you care for the safety of people who love this game, and that if we get out there we’ll come back alive, you can miss me and my football-mad son from the stadium. We’ll watch from home, thank you. It’s not an easy decision, trust me.
Goodnight, baba. That is all for now. I need to wash my face. My eyes are still itchy. Teargas has no friends.
– AGIZA HLONGWANE
* Hlongwane, a staunch Kaizer Chiefs supporter, writes in his personal capacity.