On Sunday, 21 young people died at Enyobeni tavern in East London with the youngest victim being 13 years old.
Four people are in critical condition and five bodies have yet to be identified.
The police said the deaths would be investigated.
“Upon arrival, the police found 17 bodies inside the building.” the police said:
“Nine of the deceased are women while 12 are men.”
CEO of the Eastern Cape Liquor Board Dr Nombuyiselo Makala said the board was deeply pained by the incident, has revoked the tavern owner’s liquor licence and vowed to open a criminal case.
Cause of death
Forensic pathologists say initial results indicate that the 21 youth inhaled or ingested something that led to their deaths.
National crime scene experts had also been sent to the Eastern Cape to help with the investigation.
Unathi Binqose, the spokesperson for the Eastern Cape department of community safety, told Daily Maverick that forensic pathologists “said it was something they ingested, possibly from the beers they were consuming or something they inhaled from those hubbly-bubblies [water pipes or hookahs] that they were smoking”.
Owner of tavern
In an interview with eNCA, the owner, Siyakhangela Ngevu, said he was on his way to pick up his son from initiation school when he was informed about the incident.
He was not present at Enyobeni at the time and received a call at 1am that informed him about the “chaos” at his tavern.
The tavern held a “pens down” party to mark the end of school exams.
Upon Ngevu’s arrival, he noted that there were scores of “underage people” who were allowed access to the venue. He added that the youngsters were pushing and forcing themselves into the party that was already packed.
Ngevu said he didn’t know what directly caused the deaths.
Cele sheds tears
Police Minister Bheki Cele broke down in tears when he met residents and parents of the deceased at the mortuary in East London on Sunday. Parents and families were there to identify the victims.
Addressing a crowd at Scenery Park, Cele pointed fingers at the tavern owner, asking why the venue only had one exit and entrance. He also held parents to account and questioned why they had allowed their young children to be out late on a Saturday night.
President Cyril Ramaphosa has expressed his condolences and concern at the deaths in a statement released by his spokesperson Vincent Magwenya.
“The President is, however, also concerned 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.” The statement said:
In a media statement on Monday, youth NGO LoveLife said the owner of the tavern should be charged with culpable homicide if found to have allowed underage drinking.
LoveLife CEO Dr Linda Ncube-Nkomo said this would send a strong message to those who similarly breached the conditions of their operating licences that are clear about not selling alcohol to children under the age of 18.
“Research confirms that children’s access to alcohol both inside and outside their homes is not sufficiently monitored and is contributing to increased risky behaviour including abuse of alcohol and substance. “With the use of nyaope ranking high across our townships and a high rate of school drop-outs, schoolgoing children have become prime clients for taverns and shebeens operating near schools.”