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Andrew Bolton

LettersComment Crowd control: the lessons are out there

Last week's fatal crowd crush at Johannesburg's Ellis Park brought back memories of the 1989 Hillsborough tragedy in Sheffield. Although the precise details were different, there were similarities in the way an uncontrolled crowd was able to gain access to a packed football stadium.

At Ellis Park the stadium owners blamed police for failing to prevent the crowd outside the ground from storming a perimeter fence. But the owners must also share some of the responsibility for not enabling spectators inside the ground to escape the crush which formed in overloaded seating areas.

The question that immediately springs to mind is: why did the South Africans fail to learn the lessons of Hillsborough and other stadium disasters in Europe? The stadium owners seem unwilling to accept that they had a potential problem on their hands ahead of the ill-fated match between the Kaizer Chiefs and the Orlando Pirates.

This is not as strange as it sounds. Failure to seek and adopt good practice often happens in countries going through periods of major social and economic change.

Perhaps the roots of Ellis Park's problems lie with South Africa's progress since the death of apartheid. Removal of trade sanctions has boosted football in South Africa. Since 1991 the country has been able to compete in international competitions again. High profile teams like Manchester United have recently started to tour the country and local players like Leeds United's Lucas Radebe now play in the European super leagues. These factors may all have played their part in heightening interest in last month's fatal match.

Sudden political or economic change has led to similar disasters elsewhere. Six years ago South Korea suffered two major tragedies within a matter of months at a time when it was going through a period of rapid economic growth. First a section of busy road bridge fell into the River Nam killing 32 motorists. Then a major department store collapsed, killing more than 100 people.

In all these cases it could be argued that the owners were more focussed on the delivery of capacity than on ensuring that structures were safe to use.

The same can be said about rapidly growing southern China where recent failures to anticipate risks of uncontrolled construction work have led to more than one tragedy. And January's earthquake in Gujurat, India, is another example. There, the rush to build led to flouting of design codes and contributed to the death toll.

Spreading the lessons learned elsewhere in the world is one way of heading off this sort of problem. Promoting cultural change on the ground to match the changing economic and political climate can often be more problematic, especially if a country running risks with its new infrastructure reacts badly to outside advice.

The first step must be for developing countries to realise for themselves the potential for such problems as economic growth drives construction of new infrastructure. The chances are that mistakes have been made elsewhere and advice on pre-empting them is there to be had. Until countries learn from this knowledge, more disasters are inevitable.

Andrew Bolton is NCE's news editor

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