Choosing to forget

2010-04-22 00:00

THE other day, South African Football Association (Safa) president Kirsten Nematendani promised that the boys who had died from smoke inhalation after they brought a brazier into the house to keep warm while waiting for a Bafana Bafana match, would be remembered as heroes of the game.

Nematendani was all over our television screens telling us that these young people would be remembered in much the same way that we remember Hector Peterson­ and other youngsters whose deaths have been given patriotic­ significance.

Leave aside for a minute the style crime of wearing a blazer over a football jersey, it was a shamefully cynical thing to say to grieving families when the association knows that it has been in cahoots with Fifa and the local organising committee against the “unpatriotic” act of remembering.

As it turned out, Safa — along with the South African footballing public — got an opportunity to remember, but chose to forget.

April 11 presented itself as the day that would test our memory. A day when we as South Africans could do what we do best about days such as these — fill newspaper spaces with commemorative stuff about another tragic event on our calendar. This time it was the deaths of 43 people at Ellis Park Stadium in 2001.

I should not have been surprised about again remembering to forget. The memory of the second worst sporting disaster — when 42 people died at the mining town of Orkney in 1991 — has been voluntarily banished from thoughts.

In the same way that sport has increasingly become the opiate of the masses, the World Cup, which is within striking distance, is now the nation’s preferred fix to deal with troublesome memories.

Striking workers are reminded of it to cajole them to return to work. It is in its name that the much needed and wise (or otherwise) act of decriminalising the sex trade is happening.

For everything else that does not have a neat conclusion, we choose to think that if we stop thinking or talking about it, it will disappear.

Ever since it became known that we would be hosting this important sporting gig, we have pretended that the Ellis Park Stadium disaster never happened.

For a few years after the tragedy, the two clubs involved fashioned a commemoration service at the ground. Their chairpersons and team captains laid wreaths of remembrance and uttered words to the effect that those individuals would never be forgotten.

That was then. The World Cup is here. Not only are our cities removing the great unwashed from the view of the visitors, we are helping them banish from memory what we ought not to forget.

Who among us wants to be the shameless traitor on whose head the nation would lay the blame for foreign fans deciding against going to a country that would use as one of its match venues a stadium with the dubious honour of being the scene where the most fans had died at a sporting event?

The media are not guiltless in this conspiracy of forgetting. Our silence and that of the football and general public on and around April 11 suggests that we are doing our best to pretend that we have forgotten the football lovers who died attempting to watch a football match.

In a country where so many are hot under the collar because some young fascist is choosing to remember a song whose divisive message has no immediate explanation, we have chosen to forget what ought to be uniting us.

The trouble with opiates is that you have to keep taking them if you desire to be in a permanent state of forgetting an uncomfortable reality.

Who knows, maybe Nematendani and his new band of blazers at Safa House have a better collective memory than their predecessors or the club bosses whose fans died for the love of their teams.

I hope the effect of this World Cup drug will wear off sufficiently come July 11, so that we can all start tackling the many other social and economic problems we have to deal with after the last fan goes home.

Not everything should have to wait for young Julius Malema to make us remember our past.

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