At first glance, there’s nothing special about the small, modest public park nestled between the offices of Chatsworth Child Welfare and RK Khan Circle in Durban. On any given day, the few scattered benches are occupied by people eating lunch at noon, while a solo trader displays his wares of “I heart Durban” hats, hair ties and homemade lotions.
In the background, however, enclosed by a steel cage and obscured by overgrown grass and weeds, is a monument. It is hardly noticeable but important.
Carved 19 years ago, some of the words engraved into the stone pyramid at the centre of the monument have faded with time, but it’s legible:
“The living close the eyes of the dead. But the dead open the eyes of the living. Years may go by, tears may dry, but our memories of you shall remain forever more.
“You are always with us in the softness of the rain and golden rays of the sun.
“May you rest little ones.”
The monument was unveiled on 25 March 2001, a year and a day after 13 children died in a devastating stampede at Throb nightclub.
At the bottom of the brick and granite mound, some of the children’s names engraved in elegant white lettering on the smooth black stone have completely faded, erased by time and the elements.
Haseena Pillay, 54, remembers every name and every face. Twenty years ago, she was stationed at the Chatsworth Police Station in Justice Street, about 600m from where the monument stands. At the time, she was the head of human resources. She had been stationed there after completing her basic training at the Cato Manor police college, now a police station.
Pillay reached the rank of lieutenant. Being a uniformed cop was unusual for a young Muslim woman, but she was fortunate: her parents were supportive.
Her voice is formidable and confident as she explains what unfolded on 24 March 2000. Her headscarf is elegantly wrapped around her hair, tucked and secured with a pin.
It was a busy Friday, she recalls, and the first school term was ending.
“It was late in the office and I hadn’t eaten my lunch yet,” says Pillay, her hands resting on her desk in her classroom in Asherville, where she now teaches law and policing at a technical and vocational training college.
Her lunch date was with her husband Ronald Pillay, a policeman in what was then called the riot unit.
They never got to have lunch.
Chaos suddenly erupted in the station and officers were frantic. Something was happening at Throb nightclub in Fragrance Street, about 140m from the police station.
Pillay and Ronald rushed to the scene.
“It was chaotic. I just can’t fathom for the life of me how this thing happened. So many kids, so quickly… I could hear the screams and shouting and there was this gas in the air…”
Pillay pauses, her voice breaking, and she cups her face in her hands. She apologises for struggling to remain composed. Then, softly, she explains: “It was the children, you know… Even when they were removing the bodies from the scene, I asked them to let me do it.” Her words are barely audible, as if stuck in her throat.
Then she continues: “I can remember so much of the chaos because people were running to the police station and running to the hospital, thinking that ‘my child is still alive’. So I asked them to take the children into a big office.
“I put sheets on the floor and I placed each body … because I had to get the clothing right, get their arms properly against their bodies.”
The large white sheets came from a nearby linen shop.
“We did our best,” she says, tearful again. “They were dead, and we didn’t want their parents to see them like that.
“As the families came to us, I knew who they were looking for when they spoke of who their child was. I knew who I had to take them to.’’
All officers stayed on shift for the weekend, combing through the grim scene to unearth evidence of what had happened. Hundreds of children had been crammed into the tiny nightclub and many had suffered serious injuries.
“It was really painful… We found their shoes lying in a pile. So many things must have been going through their minds … the fear that must have gripped them trying to get out alive.”
Accusations and mistrust
But in the days that followed, the station suffered a severe backlash. The officers were accused of failing to police the nightclub, which had granted admission to underaged schoolchildren paying R12 each.
The station was also already well known for the SBV robbery. Four officers stationed there were on trial for masterminding South Africa’s biggest heist, stealing R31 million. Public confidence in the station was low and mistrust was rife.
But Pillay says the worst response came from the then national police commissioner, Jackie Selebi. “He insisted that because we were not carrying out our duties correctly and efficiently, it resulted in the Throb disaster. It was very traumatic for us.”
Selebi himself was found guilty of corruption and sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment in August 2010. He died five years later from a kidney-related illness.
Pillay and her colleagues were soon moved to other stations. She eventually left the service and says it was only then that she sought help for the trauma she had suffered on the job.
“But we never forgot. It was like it happened yesterday,” she says.
A deep vein of melancholia
More community outrage, fear and devastation followed after it emerged that the youngest child who died, Jadeine Mohunlal, was only 11 years old. The community felt a sense of disbelief – what was an 11-year-old doing at a nightclub? The residents felt they had failed these children.
Chatsworth is in the south of Durban. It was classified as an Indian township under apartheid.
In his collection of short stories about Chatsworth, author Pravasan Pillay writes: “I have always felt that there is a deep vein of melancholia that runs through Chatsworth and which touches the lives of some of its residents.
“It’s a place where people were forcibly removed to, from other parts of Durban during apartheid [from 1950 onwards], so there is an obvious sadness in its origins – however, the melancholia I sense is something more, it’s a way of being in the world, it’s a heaviness.’’
The earliest residents were poor working-class Indians. They were made up of labourers who worked for the municipality, then known as the Durban Corporation, and were housed in the Magazine Barracks in the city.
Others came from Mayville, Cato Manor, Clairwood, Riverside, Prospect Hall, Duikerfontein and Sea Cow Lake. They were mostly fishermen, factory workers and market gardeners. Their children would become teachers, doctors, accountants, nurses, police officers, lawyers, artists, bus and truck drivers, and factory workers.
From tragedy, a youth centre
Clive Pillay’s parents came from the Magazine Barracks and settled in Bayview, which he says was the “hub” of activism during apartheid. He was among the hundreds of people who stood anxiously and in disbelief outside Throb in the late afternoon of 24 March 2000.
“Police [arrived] and [were] bringing bodies out in body bags. There were no cellphones back then and so many parents started to [gather together]. It was the end-of-term matinee and most parents didn’t know their kids had gone out. They didn’t know until they got home [that] their kids weren’t home,” says Clive.
The matinee wasn’t an unusual gathering. “It was common for matinees to happen. Even the generation before that went to matinees. Nowadays, they have house parties,” he chuckles.
A nightclub matinee operated for a short time, usually between 1pm and 5pm. It was considerably cheaper than at night and drew younger revellers, often underage. Most Indian parents, especially working-class ones, were strict. Unable to afford after-school care or nannies, their children had to go home directly after school. Nightclubs were forbidden.
The tragedy at Throb highlighted the need for a youth centre, a safe place for children. One was opened in October 2003 as the Chatsworth Youth Centre, not far from Throb. Its name was changed to the Nelson Mandela Community Youth Centre a few years ago because the former president had opened it, and the new name also helps with funding, admits Clive. He immediately started as a volunteer when it opened and is now the programme director.
“There was no real place we could call a safe place, and sometimes only when these things happen there’s the outrage when people find out where their kids have been going,” says Clive.
A central hub in Chatsworth
The programmes on offer at the centre, which relies on public funding, are free in order to allow everyone to participate. Volleyball, basketball, chess, dancing, boxing and badminton are among the activities. During the interview, Clive is often interrupted. There’s a group organising a boxing tournament in the large sports hall, which resembles an auditorium.
A modest stage at the back of the great hall is painted a dark blue and vibrant red and features a mural of Mandela on the wall behind it. During New Frame’s visit, the other side of the hall is occupied by a group of fishermen sitting around a table. They are taking part in a workshop of the Department of Economic Development, learning how to run a co-op.
The light green paint on the walls of the great hall is peeling, and stacked on the floor is a pile of bricks wrapped in newspaper. The glass in the doors leading to the basketball court and the vast overgrown garden is cracked. The lawnmower was stolen, explains Clive, shrugging his shoulders.
The youth centre has become a central hub in Chatsworth. It advocates health and wellness, runs after-school tuition classes and hosts a women’s group, environmental group and pensioners’ groups. But drugs like “sugars”, a mixture of low-grade residual cocaine and heroin cut with strychnine, plague the community, along with high rates of unemployment.
“Unemployment is extremely high. That’s why we are trying to empower the community and give them some skills,” says Clive, who dreams of launching a computer centre to help people apply for jobs.
Twenty years later
The impact of the tragic events two decades ago has stayed with Pillay and Clive. It changed their lives and their community, mostly because the truth of what happened was too horrific to comprehend.
A rival club owner had put profit over the lives of children.
Three men, Sivanathan Chetty, Vincent Pillay and Selvan “Dogman” Naidoo, had been tasked with getting revellers out of Throb and into a rival nightclub, Silver Slipper. A police officer who had been part of the investigation but cannot be named because they are barred from speaking to the media, says: “That day was hectic. We had to barricade the scene because parents wanted to know if their kids were there.”
The three men had parked minibus taxis outside Throb. Their plan was to detonate a tear-gas canister inside Throb and when the panicked kids ran out, they would be ready to take them to Silver Slipper.
But their plan backfired. The door to the fire escape was locked and the only way out was down a narrow staircase and through the main entrance. The policeman estimates there might have been about 900 kids inside that day. When the tear gas floated through the club, stinging the kids’ eyes and catching in their throats, they panicked.
A stampede ensued and, as they rushed down the stairs, the wall next to the stairs collapsed, crushing some. Others were trampled to death.
The community was angry. Its own members had done this.
The matter was heard in the Durban high court, a year after the tragic events. The now late judge Jan Hugo, who presided over the case, was a giant man with a white beard. He was fondly referred to as the “Father Christmas” judge.
Hugo was patient and kind during the trial because most of the witnesses were teenagers who had been badly injured in the stampede and witnessed the death of their peers.
He had suffered criticism after he acquitted Magnus Malan, defence minister during apartheid, on charges of murder for political reasons. In the Throb case, though, Hugo handed down the harshest sentence ever given for culpable homicide. Chetty was sentenced to an effective 19-and-a-half years in prison, while Vincent Pillay and Naidoo were each sentenced to an effective 15 years.
The three were convicted on 13 counts of culpable homicide, 56 counts of common assault and one count of illegal possession of tear gas. But on appeal, the sentences of Vincent Pillay and Naidoo were reduced to six years and six months’ imprisonment.
The appeal court found that while “the palpable anger of the community from which the victims came is entirely justified and fully understandable”, it was a strong mitigating factor that the two appellants were “economically vulnerable” and “exploited by Chetty who requisitioned them to place and activate the tear gas canister”.
Both Vincent Pillay and Selvan came from working-class families who lived in small, cramped council flats.
All three men are out of prison now and their whereabouts are unknown. The owner of the Silver Slipper was never charged, but the police officer who worked on the investigation claims he was a drug dealer. “He’s dead now. He was killed in a drive-by shooting a few years ago.”
Rory Soobramoney’s death
The day Rory Soobramoney died, he wasn’t supposed to be at Throb. The 15-year-old was a pupil at Arena Park Secondary School. His father, Lazarus Soobramoney, the principal at Lotus Primary School, had dropped him off at school in the morning. The Soobramoneys had come from Clairwood to settle in Chatsworth; they are a family of teachers. Their two remaining sons have also become educators and, like their father, musicians.
The family usually spent the last day of the school term in each other’s company, but on that day Rory asked his father if they could postpone it. He agreed. Instead, Soobramoney took his wife out to Nando’s and went shopping at a local department store, The Hub.
“Then a schoolboy sees me and gives me the shock of life. He tells me, ‘Sir, Rory is unconscious.’ And I run like mad, my wife behind me,” says Soobramoney.
When they arrived at the scene, it was a disaster zone, he says. “My wife climbed to the top and all she could see was bodies. I was at the bottom and another boy who I know from the district just came and whispered in my ear, ‘Rory didn’t make it.’
“Oh, it was like my guts just came out.” The family rushed to RK Khan Hospital, a state facility about 350m from the nightclub.
“At Khan’s I couldn’t move. Someone had to identify my baby. I had to send his brother Sashin. He was 17. He had to identify his baby brother,” says Soobramoney, admitting that he didn’t have the strength to do it.
The family members are all devout Christians and Soobramoney says he has forgiven the men responsible for the tragedy.
The devastation of losing Rory has not faded and it feels like it was yesterday, he says. Neither his sons nor his wife will do media interviews and he’s the only one prepared to speak about the events.
A few years ago, while talking on a community radio station about Rory, a paramedic who had been on duty that day heard him and called in.
“He apologised to me. He said Rory wasn’t supposed to die. He said Rory had got out but went back into the club to help. He saved two children. On his third try, the wall collapsed and fell on Rory. He broke his neck. That was Rory – he always wanted to help,” says Soobramoney.
Twenty years after the Throb nightclub tragedy, its effect on the community is still palpable. The impact is carried by Haseena Pillay, who, like many other first responders on the scene, will never forget 24 March 2000. For Clive Pillay, it has highlighted the need for a safe space for residents, especially young people. And the grief of Rory Soobramoney’s family will last a lifetime.
The monument in the back of the small Chatsworth park, somewhat obscured from view, highlights the need to place memory at the centre. Unlike the lettering on the stone, the need to remember has not faded.
In memory of:
Jadeine Mohunlal, 11
Guresha Naidoo, 15
Junaid Gaffoor, 18
Nolan Pillay, 17
Preston Premsingh, 13
Chantal Maduray, 16
Rory Soobramoney, 15
Sumeshan Govender, 12
Sumaya Kudoos, 16