At least 21 teenagers, the youngest possibly only 13 years old, died this weekend after a night out at a tavern in township inin a tragedy where the cause is still unclear. Many are believed to have been students who celebrated the end of high school graduation Saturday night, provincial officials said.
There were no visible wounds on the bodies. Officials have ruled out a storm as a possible cause, saying autopsies will determine whether the deaths could be linked to poisoning.
Crowds of people, including parents whose children were missing, gathered outside the tavern on Sunday where the tragedy took place in the city of East London while hearses gathered the bodies, an AFP correspondent saw.
High-ranking officials hurried to the southern city. They included National Police Minister Bheki Cele, who broke down in tears after coming out of a morgue where the bodies were stored.
“It’s a terrible scene,” he told reporters. “They are quite young. When you are told they are 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 dead. Seventeen were found dead inside the tavern. The rest died in hospital.
Drinks are allowed for people over the age of 18 in township tavernas, often known as shebeens, which often lie cheek to the jaw with family homes or, in some cases, inside the homes themselves.
However, safety regulations and laws on drinking age are not always enforced.
“We have a child who was there, who died on the spot,” the parents of a 17-year-old boy said.
“This child, we thought was not going to die this way. This was a humble child, respectful,” said grieving mother Ntombizonke Mgangala, who was standing next to her husband outside the morgue.
A 17-year-old girl who identified with Reuters as Lolly said the tavern was popular with teenagers.
President Cyril Ramaphosa, who is attendingin Germany, sent their condolences.
He expressed concern “about the reported circumstances under which such young people were gathered in a place which on the front of it should be banned for persons under 18 years of age.”
The authorities are now considering whether to revise the liquor license regulations.
“It’s unbelievable; … to lose 20 young people just like that,” said provincial Prime Minister Oscar Mabuyane, visibly shocked.
He spoke to journalists before the toll was updated to at least 21.
He condemned “unlimited consumption of liquor.”
“You can not just act in the middle of society like this and think that young people are not going to experiment,” he said outside the tavern, in a residential area called Scenery Park.
Empty bottles of alcohol, wigs and even a pastel purple “Happy Birthday” sash were found strewn on the dusty street outside the double-decker Enyobeni Tavern, according to Unathi Binqose, a security official who arrived at the scene at dawn.
Binqose ruled out a storm as the cause of death, telling AFP: “There are no visible open wounds.”
“Forensic (investigators) will take samples and test to see if there was any poisoning of any kind,” he said, adding that the bar was crowded.
The local newspaper DispatchLive reported on its website: “The bodies are strewn across tables, chairs and on the floor, with no clear signs of injury.”
Parents and officials said they understood that many of the dead were students celebrating “pens down” parties held after graduating from high school.
Local TV showed police officers trying to calm a crowd of parents and spectators gathered outside the club in the city, located on the shores of the Indian Ocean, about 620 miles south of Johannesburg.