Township station stampede kills 16

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For the people of the sprawling Tembisa township yesterday started like any other day - tough, before dawn and with the usual indignity.

Those lucky enough to have jobs in this isolated shanty settlement north- east of Johannesburg leave home before 4am to queue for trains to the city. Yesterday the usual huge numbers placed the usual impossible pressure on a straining public transport system. By 6am the desperate scrum to board the first trains, and arrive at work on time, had begun.

Fifteen minutes later 16 people were dead or dying and more than 60 others lay crushed and injured after a stampede. Guards from a private security company, with orders to get tough with ticket dodgers, apparently set upon commuters with electric cattle prods in a barbaric exercise in crowd control.

Local people said the "shock sticks" were an innovation. When they failed, one young guard reportedly shot into the air, adding to the panic. Yesterday President Nelson Mandela described the mayhem that followed as a "national disaster".

There was ugly violence, reminiscent of the days when townships were war zones for young blacks in confrontation with the state. Gangs of youths petrol-bombed the ticket station. Police replied with rubber bullets. Soon all that remained among the charred wood and twisted metal was the pathetically inadequate single turnstile through which thousands cram each day.

As word of the tragedy spread, thousands gathered on scrubland outside the station, demanding that the security staff trapped inside be handed over. The men were eventually rescued by police.

Most of the dead were found on the station platform but some, trapped on a bridge above the line, had fallen onto the rails. Relatives were prevented by police from seeing the bodies but some discovered their loss from a pile of shoes and belongings discarded in the crush.

In the rioting that followed, journalists and police officers were stoned and their vehicles vandalised. "We're angry," shouted one young man. "They can put out the fire but we will be back to pull the ticket office down."

"These guys get two weeks training and then they are let loose to use shock sticks and guns on our people," said KP, 25, a rescue and emergency worker. "They know nothing about crowd control and they panicked ... This company is new and the guards heavy-handed. The rail company employs private guards to save money; our lives are no one's concern. These sticks are supposed to touch people for just a few seconds but these men hold them on for longer than that."

Other eyewitnesses claimed that groups of security guards had held commuters down and assaulted them with the sticks.

A spokesman for Metrorail said that the use of cattle prods was not confirmed, but hospital staff claim some injuries - including two comas - suggest electrocution.

The resurfacing of township violence took many by surprise. But community anger reached beyond the loss of 16 lives. People complained bitterly about general conditions in Tembisa, which is home to tens of thousands. Once, apartheid condemned them to live here; now poverty and unemployment has them trapped.

President Mandela promised yesterday that the cause of the tragedy would be established and those responsible identified. "The safety of commuters must be given the highest priority and the government will take urgent steps, necessary to ensure such a disaster never occurs again," he said. Local African National Congress officials said an investigation should concentrate on the "heavy handedness and unnecessary force" used by security guards.

It is a measure of township poverty that the local police chief, Superintendent Sandile Msenyana, concentrated not on the dead but on the circumstances of those left behind. Most of those who died were family breadwinners.