Young, jobless and desperate – Inside the Transnet stampede

2012-06-23 12:23

Waking up at dawn, Collin Williams believed that October 7 2011 held the promise of gold – a chance for a better job.

This was just what the 32-year-old father from Bloemfontein needed, especially after rumours began circulating at the factory where he worked that the business was about to close down.

But little did Williams know, he was about to witness a stampede in which 69 desperate jobseekers were injured at the offices of Transnet that day, burning images on his memory he now wishes he could forget.

He says: “I saw an advertisement for 30 vacancies at Transnet in Bloemfontein. I like working with machines and thought it was what I had been waiting for.”

Williams knew he needed to wake up very early to be among the first to arrive at the parastatal’s offices.

“The advert stated clearly that the gates would open at 8am so I decided to leave the house at 4am,’’ he says.

Williams had asked a friend to give him a lift to the Transnet offices on the corner of Gruis and Andries Pretorius streets in the suburb of Navalsig.

“On our way there I thought asking my friend to take me there was a good idea because we drove past big groups of people flocking in that direction,” he says.

Williams was shocked when he arrived.

“The queue of hopefuls was already in front of the Navalsig Police Station – this is way down the street and around the corner. I estimated at least 2 000 people were in front of me and it grew as scores of people joined it,” he says.

He joined the queue hoping to reach the gates – which were locked – by the time the applications closed at 8am.

“Talking to people in the queue, I heard some were from as far as Kimberley. They said they came the previous night and freshened up at petrol stations.

Others slept in front of the gates for the best part of the night,” he says.

Yet more had hitchhiked from rural towns elsewhere in the province in the hope of finding a job and new life in the city.

Joseph Mofokeng (35) was fortunate to be further ahead in the queue.

He says: “I was working night shift at my job, starting at 8pm and knocking off at 2am in the early morning so I decided to go straight to the Transnet offices.”

Mofokeng was by no means the first there – a number of people were ahead of him in the line that had begun to form.

“I estimated about 70 people were in front of me in the queue,” he says, adding that he thought most of the people looked as if they were about his age.

The queue of thousands waited until 7.30am when the gates were opened for the first group of people to enter the premises and to sit for the assessment tests which were part of the application process.

That was when the trouble really began.

“I was clearly going to be part of the second group of people, but we started to notice that people that had come after us seemed to be able to enter before us,” says Mofokeng, adding that some in the queue began to complain.

When it was finally his turn to enter, he discovered that once they got inside, the applicants needed to form four different queues in front of the hall where the tests were to be written.

“Some people in these lines were not queuing with us outside, which meant they had somehow snuck in,” he says.

“When it was time for us to enter the hall, people started pushing from behind and I got stuck between the security gate of the entrance door of the hall and the wall. I started to panic and realised I had to get out or I would be crushed.”

Mofokeng says he climbed onto the security gate and hung there for a while.

“When I climbed over the gate, I pushed myself forward and literally flew into the hall, landing on the floor.

Several security guards, trying desperately to control the crowd, picked me up,” he says.

Mofokeng recounted how the security guards accused him of trying to kill people.

“A struggle between me and the security guards started when they handcuffed me,” he says.

“After a while they let me go and I walked back towards the entrance gates.

“I could hear a security guard repeatedly saying in Afrikaans that he’d warned people – Transnet management, I assumed – that this was bound to happen and that they needed to stop the process, but no one would listen.

“There was a lot of pushing and shoving at the gates. I was too scared to look, but there were people lying on the ground.

“My wrists were sore from the handcuffs and I had pain in my side under my ribcage,” he says.

Williams realised that the queue had not moved and he went to the front to see what was going on.

“I jumped on to the wall to see better and what I saw was terrifying. People were lying on the floor in the middle of the crowd and got trampled on as others tried to get away,” he says.

“Some were just lying there and seemed unconscious. There was blood everywhere and others were so scared they wet themselves.”

According to him, others were so desperate to get out of harm’s way they fled leaving their shoes behind.

Mofokeng says that as he walked away and looked over his shoulder, he could see security guards throwing buckets of water over people who were lying unconscious on the ground, trying to revive them.

According to a statement released by Transnet, about 10 000 jobseekers turned up that morning.

The statement reads: “The crowd became unruly. Some started jumping over the fence, forcing security to lock the gates.

“But they continued to push the gates, resulting in a stampede.”

Initial reports recorded that 69 people were injured but in its statement, Transnet estimated about 40 were, including four of its employees.

Mofokeng says he was hurt, but he did not notify anyone.

“I just wanted to get home,” he says.

Transnet’s Rail Engineering spokesperson Mduduzi Nxasana says the advertisement they placed in the Express community newspaper was for a “placement assessment” for 30 “process workers”.

According to him, it was the first time Transnet had received “such an overwhelming response” to a job advertisement.

Nxasana says they expected about 4 000 jobseekers to turn up.

A statement released by Transnet at the time said that two halls were arranged for the applicants to write their 30-minute assessments.

Each of the rooms was supposed to accommodate 400 people, and the parastatal estimated that the whole process would take about four hours.

But by 7am that picture had changed dramatically.

According to Transnet, guards allowed the first 2 000 applicants onto the premises at 7.45am.

After the first 400 began writing their assessment tests, “the crowd outside the gates started panicking in fear that they would not be allowed in because the advert stated that the gates would be locked at 8am”.

Nxasana declined to reveal whether Transnet hired anyone that day, or who eventually got the jobs.

The stampede, he says, had been a lesson for them.

All he would say was: “As a result, we are currently reviewing our processes to ensure that we avoid similar occurrences in future.”

Apprenticeships from parastatals

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