At least 21 teenagers, the youngest possibly as young as 13, died this weekend after a night out at a township tavernin a tragedy whose cause remains unclear. Many are thought to have been students celebrating the end of their high school exams Saturday night, provincial officials said.
There were no visible wounds on the bodies. Officials have ruled out a stampede as a possible cause and said autopsies would show whether the deaths could be linked to poisoning.
A crowd of people, including parents whose children were missing, gathered outside the tavern where the tragedy took place in the city of east London on Sunday, as morgue vehicles collected the bodies, an AFP correspondent noted.
Senior government officials rushed to the southern city. Among them was National Police Minister Bheki Cele, who burst into tears as he emerged from a morgue where the bodies were stored.
“It’s a terrible scene,” he told reporters. “They’re pretty young. When you’re told they’re 13 years old, 14 years old and you go there and you see them. It breaks (you).”
The Eastern Cape provincial government said eight girls and 13 boys were killed. Seventeen were found dead in the tavern. The rest died in hospital.
Drinking is allowed for those over the age of 18 in township taverns, commonly known as shebeens, which are often adjacent to the family homes or, in some cases, inside the houses themselves.
But safety regulations and laws on the drinking age are not always enforced.
“We have a child who was there who died on the spot,” said the parents of a 17-year-old boy.
“This child, we didn’t think it would die like this. This was a humble child, respectful,” said grieving mother Ntombizonke Mgangala, who stood next to her husband outside the morgue.
A 17-year-old girl who identified herself as Lolly to Reuters news agency, said the tavern was popular among teenagers.
President Cyril Ramaphosa, who attends thein Germany, expressed his condolences.
He expressed concern “about the reported conditions under which such young people were gathered in a location which, on the face of it, should be off limits to those under 18.”
Authorities are now considering whether to revise liquor licensing regulations.
“It is absolutely unbelievable;… just losing 20 young lives,” said provincial Prime Minister Oscar Mabuyane, visibly shocked.
He spoke to reporters before the toll was increased to at least 21.
He condemned the ‘unlimited consumption of liquor’.
“You can’t just act in the middle of society and think that young people aren’t going to experiment,” he said outside the tavern, in a residential area called Scenery Park.
Empty alcohol bottles, wigs and even a pastel purple “Happy Birthday” sash were found strewn on the dusty street outside the two-storey Enyobeni Tavern, according to Unathi Binqose, a security officer who arrived at the scene at dawn.
Binqose rules out a stampede as the cause of death, telling AFP: “There are no visible open wounds.”
“Forensics (investigators) will take samples and test to see if there has been any poisoning,” he said, adding that the bar was overcrowded.
Local newspaper ShippingLive reported on its website, “Bodies are scattered on tables, chairs and on the floor, with no apparent signs of injury.”
Parents and officials said they understood that many of the dead were college students celebrating “penn-down” parties held after high school graduation.
Local television showed police officers trying to calm a crowd of parents and onlookers gathered outside the club in the town, which sits on the coast of the Indian Ocean, about 620 miles south of Johannesburg.