South African authorities are investigating the death of 22 teenagers, some as young as 14, after their bodies were found on Sunday morning, June 26, in a township tavern near the coastal city of East London.
Many are said to be students who were 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 on Sunday outside the tavern where the tragedy happened in the city of East London, while mortuary vehicles collected the bodies, an AFP correspondent saw.
Senior government officials including national Police Minister Bheki Cele rushed to the southern city where the tragedy occurred.
“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).”
The provincial government of Eastern Cape said eight girls and 13 boys had died. Seventeen were found dead inside the tavern. The rest died in hospital.
“We have a child that was there, who passed away on the scene,” said the parents of a 17-year-old girl.
“This child, we were not thinking was going to die this way. This was a humble child, respectful,” said grieving mother Ntombizonke Mgangala, standing next to her husband outside the morgue.
President Cyril Ramaphosa, who is attending the G7 summit in Germany, sent his condolences.
He voiced 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”.
The authorities are now considering whether to revise liquor licensing regulations. South Africa is among the countries in Africa where most alcohol is consumed.
“It’s absolutely unbelievable… losing 20 young lives just like that,” provincial prime minister Oscar Mabuyane said, visibly shocked.
He was speaking to reporters before the toll was updated to at least 21. 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 from outside the tavern, in a residential area called Scenery Park.
Empty bottles of alcohol, wigs were found strewn on the dusty street outside the double-storey Enyobeni Tavern, according to Unathi Binqose, a safety government official who arrived at the scene at dawn.
Ruling out a stampede as the cause of death, Binqose told AFP: “There are no visible open wounds.”
“Forensic (investigators) will take samples and test to see if there was any poisoning of any sort,” he said, adding the bar was overcrowded.