At least 21 teenagers, the youngest may be as young as 13, died this weekend after a night out at a township tavern inin a tragedy whose cause remains unclear. Many are believed to have been students celebrating the end of their high school exams on 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 determine if the deaths could be linked to poisoning.
Crowds of people, including parents whose children were missing, gathered outside the tavern where the tragedy occurred in the city of east London on Sunday while hearses collected the bodies, an AFP correspondent saw.
High-ranking government officials rushed to the southern city. They included National Police Minister Bheki Cele, who broke down in tears after emerging from a morgue where the bodies were being stored.
“It’s a horrific scene,” he told reporters. “You are quite young. When you are told they are 13 years old, 14 years old and you go there and see them. It breaks (you).”
The Eastern Cape provincial government said eight girls and 13 boys had died. Seventeen were found dead in the tavern. The rest died in hospital.
Drinking is permitted for those over the age of 18 in township taverns, commonly known as shebeens, which are often adjacent to family homes or in some cases within the homes themselves.
But safety regulations and drinking age laws are not always enforced.
“We have a child with us who died at the scene,” said the parents of a 17-year-old boy.
“We didn’t think this child would die like that. It was a humble child, respectful,” said grieving mother Ntombizonke Mgangala, standing next to her husband outside the morgue.
A 17-year-old girl, who posed as Lolly to Reuters, said the tavern was popular with teenagers.
President Cyril Ramaphosa attending thein Germany, conveyed his condolences.
He expressed concern “at the reported circumstances in which such young people were congregated in a place that, at first sight, should be off-limits to persons under the age of 18”.
Authorities are now considering revising the alcohol serving policy.
“It’s absolutely incredible…to lose 20 young people’s lives just like that,” said the province’s prime minister, Oscar Mabuyane, in shock.
He spoke to reporters before the toll was updated to at least 21.
He condemned the “unlimited consumption of alcohol”.
“You can’t just act like that 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 in front of the two-story Enyobeni tavern, according to Unathi Binqose, a government security official who arrived at the scene at dawn.
Binqose ruled out stampede as the cause of death, telling AFP: “There are no visible open wounds.”
“Forensic scientists (investigators) will take samples and test whether there was any type of poisoning,” he said, adding that the bar was crowded.
Local newspaper DispatchLive reported on its website: “Bodies lie scattered on tables, chairs and on the floor with no apparent signs of injury.”
Parents and officials said they understood many of the dead were students who were having “Pens Down” parties after high school exams ended.
Local television showed police officers trying to calm a crowd of parents and bystanders who had gathered outside the club in the city on the Indian Ocean coast, some 620 miles south of Johannesburg.