- They were found dead at the tavern in Scenery Park, East London, in the early hours of Sunday morning
- Their bodies were found strewn across tables, chairs and on the floor of the local nightclub following a night of partying
- Police are investigating the exact cause of death
- President Cyril Ramaphosa, who is attending the G-7 summit in Germany, has sent his condolences
Shock and disbelief continue to trail the discovery of at least 21 dead teenagers in a South African tavern on Sunday morning. Many of the dead are thought to have been students celebrating the end of their high-school exams on Saturday night. Provincial officials put the ages of the teenagers at between 13 and 17.
The Eastern Cape provincial government said eight girls and 13 boys had died. Seventeen were found dead inside the tavern while the rest died in hospital.
The cause of the tragedy remains unclear. There were no visible wounds on the bodies and officials have ruled out a stampede as a possible cause, saying autopsies would determine if the deaths could be linked to poisoning.
According to an AFP correspondent, crowds, including parents whose children were missing, gathered on Sunday outside the Enyobeni Tavern in the coastal city of East London, around one thousand kilometres south of Johannesburg, where the tragedy happened.
Senior government officials rushed to the southern city, including national Police Minister Bheki Cele, who broke down in tears after emerging from a morgue where the bodies were being stored.
“It’s a terrible scene,” he told reporters. “They are pretty young. When you are told they are 13 years, 14 years and you go there and you see them. It breaks you.”
Drinking is permitted for people over 18 years old in township taverns, commonly known as shebeens, but safety regulations and drinking-age laws are hardly enforced.
A 17-year-old girl who identified herself to the Reuters news agency as Lolly said the Enyobeni Tavern was popular among teenagers.
President Cyril Ramaphosa, who is attending the G-7 summit in Germany, has sent his condolences. He expressed concern about “the reported circumstances under which such young people were gathered at a venue which, on the face of it, should be off-limits to persons under the age of 18.”
“It’s absolutely unbelievable ;.. losing 20 young lives just like that,” provincial prime minister Oscar Mabuyane told reporters, visibly shocked. He condemned the “unlimited consumption of liquor.”
“You can’t just trade 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-story Enyobeni Tavern, according to Unathi Binqose, a safety government official who arrived at the scene at dawn.
“Forensic investigators will take samples and test to see if there was any poisoning of any sort,” he said, adding that the bar was overcrowded.
The local Dispatch Live newspaper reported on its website that “bodies are lying strewn across tables, chairs and on the floor, with no obvious signs of injury.”
The police have confirmed the deaths and urged anyone who knows what transpired to assist the investigations and share information on the Crimestop hotline number 08600 10 111.