EAST LONDON: At least 21 young people were found dead at a nightclub in a township in South Africa’s southern city of East London on Sunday, officials said.

Most of the victims were aged between 18 and 20 years, a provincial police chief brigadier Thembinkosi Kinana said.

“We are still investigating the circumstances surrounding the incident,” he added.

Many are thought to have been students celebrating the end of their high-school exams on Saturday night, officials said. Unverified pictures shared on social media showed bodies with no visible signs of injuries, strewn on the floor of the club.

Crowds of people, including parents whose children were missing, gathered on Sunday outside the tavern where the tragedy happened, while mortuary vehicles collected the bodies, an AFP correspondent saw.

Investigations underway to ascertain causes of death

National police minister Bheki Cele, who visited the morgue where the bodies were being stored, said: “It’s a terrible scene. 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.

Drinking is permitted for over-18s in township taverns, commonly known as shebeens, which are often situated cheek by jowl with family homes or, in some case, inside the homes themselves. But safety regulations and drinking-age laws are not always enforced.

“We have a child that was there, who passed away on the scene,” said the parents of a 17-year-old boy. “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”.

Empty bottles of alcohol, wigs and even a pastel purple “Happy Birthday” sash were found strewn on the dusty street outside the double-storey Enyobeni Tavern, according to Unathi Binqose, a safety official.

Ruling out a stampede as the cause of death, Binqose said: “There are no visible open wounds. Forensic (investigators) will take samples and test to see if there was any poisoning of any sort.

Published in Dawn, June 27th, 2022

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