Last Thursday, 11 April, was the 18th anniversary of the Ellis Park disaster. On this fateful day in 2001, sport lovers in South Africa, Southern Africa and indeed the international community were shocked by the Ellis Park disaster where 43 people lost their lives and 158 were seriously injured at a match involving Kaizer Chiefs FC and Orlando Pirates FC.
In 2017, 17 football fans died and hundreds of others were seriously injured during a stampede in Northern Angola.
Last month, a woman was trampled to death during a stampede at Zimbabwe’s National Sport Stadium wanting to enter the facility to watch that country’s national team playing against the Republic of Congo.
This was another rude awakening for sport leaders as well as law enforcement and security agents.
These challenges of stadium security and safety are not just one for Angola, South Africa and Zimbabwe. Moreover, these are not just isolated incidents or occurrences.
The whole of Southern Africa is affected by this problem.
One of the important lessons to be learnt from these tragedies is fan education and engagement for security matters.
Fans must know that it is important to queue peacefully and orderly when getting into a sport facility.
They must also know that it is very dangerous to bring flares and other forms of pyrotechnics into an event.
These things must be written on the tickets as a condition of admission as well as at airports bus and train stations.
Furthermore, greater efforts must be made at combating organised hooliganism at sports.
Hooliganism is a dangerous threat to public safety at major sports events.
There is a dire need for sharing of intelligence amongst law-enforcement agencies to ensure that members as well as organisers and ringleaders of these organised groups of violent people are barred from getting anywhere near major sport event.
Although occurrences of organised hooliganism are rare in Africa, incidences of serious violence in stadiums have been reported in Egypt where great numbers of people have even lost their lives.
Whether we like it or not, sport events and security issues will always be inter-twined in the modern world. Safety of athletes, officials and spectators is of paramount importance in modern sport.
Africa and particularly Southern Africa, is slowly making in-roads into the sport mega-events industry.
This also requires constant improvement on organisational standards.
It is hoped that Southern Africa’s regional sport authorities have learnt serious lessons from what has happened in Angola, South African and Zimbabwe.
It is the responsibility of the sports organisations and leaders to develop good working relationships with the police and other security agencies in order to identify risk factors and eliminate them in the preparation and organisation of sports events at every level.
It is important that even though sports leaders are not security experts, they are able to arrange to ensure safety, fun and enjoyment at their events.
Sport is about solidarity, making friends and building communities. A sport event should be a welcoming environment where families can congregate to socialise and enjoy themselves.
Sports events should not be places or gatherings where there is a high probability that you might lose limbs or your very life.
Safety precautions and guidelines should also be written clearly and posted at facilities so that people know what to do and how to behave in the case of emergency. Panic and stampedes are the major causes of deaths at sports events.
The presence of armed police and security might give a picture of militarisation of sports matters but sometimes it is actually a good thing.
Coupled with vigilance, it acts as a deterrent to miscreants, hooligans and terrorists who are hell-bent on creating chaos at major sports events.
As the globalisation and commercialisation of sport continues unabated, Southern Africa will also attract its fair share of mega-events.
There is need for sports leaders to be prepared in order to provide best possible organisation of memorable events, which add value to the sports legacy and heritage.
Shoddily organised competitions are not safe events. In fact, sport-governing authorities should actually be demanding plans for major sport event management from clubs and national sports associations.
Safety and security issues should be covered as major components, where the inputs of the local police have been made.
Thorough checklists need to be developed and signed off by both the event organisers and police; otherwise an event cannot and should not take place.
This will also help sports administrators to develop, adopt and implement high standards in event organisation and management.
As the wise elders say, “It is better to be safe than to be sorry”. It is therefore a fact that disasters do not just happen by themselves at major sports events. Organisers are ultimately responsible for such disasters! In all kinds of industries, safety should never be compromised. Sport should not be an exception!