East London – South Africa’s president on Wednesday blamed the “scourge of underage drinking” for the deaths of 21 people, mostly teens, in unclear circumstances at a township tavern last month, in an incident that shook the nation.
Speaking at a memorial service for the victims, President Cyril Ramaphosa vowed to crack down on “unscrupulous” bar keepers who flout regulations, putting profits before children’s lives, and suggested the drinking age be raised across the country.
“Children should not have been allowed into that place, they should not have been served alcohol,” Ramaphosa told a crowd gathered at a stadium in Scenery Park, a township in the coastal city of East London, where empty coffins were laid out to symbolise the loss.
“South Africa has one of the highest rates of problem drinkers in the world,” he said.
“We are now going to draw the line… We are losing our future generation to the scourge of underage drinking.”
South Africa banned alcohol sales nationwide during the coronavirus lockdown to ease the number of trauma cases in hospitals.
Eleven days after the youths’ bodies were discovered strewn in the Enyobeni tavern, the cause of the deaths remains a riddle.
The police are yet to wrap up their investigation, although officials have ruled out a stampede, and autopsy results are still to be made public.
“Somebody somewhere must answer” for the tragedy, Police Minister Bheki Cele declared at the memorial service.
Waiting for closure
Scores of mourners filled a large marquee where the 19 coffins were laid out, and hundreds more gathered outside to follow the ceremony.
Some broke down in tears, while others chanted prayers as a police band played the national anthem.
Ramaphosa asked grieving families to allow time for police to finish their probe, while urging authorities to speed up the process.
“The families do want closure. They want to know what happened to their children. Let’s not keep them waiting for far too long,” he said.
The incident has drawn grief and anger in the country, which has long grappled with deep-rooted inequality and structural issues, and has one of the highest murder rates in the world.
“Mr President… South Africa is tired,” a grieving relative said after reading an obituary from the podium.
Undertakers said the caskets were empty. Most of the burials will occur this week.
The youngsters died in what survivors have described as a battle to escape the jam-packed venue, with one reporting a suffocating smell.
The grim discovery of their bodies was made on June 26.
The youngest was just 14 years and the oldest 20, according to birthdates listed on the memorial official programme distributed on Wednesday.
Cele had previously said the youngest was 13 and the oldest 17.
“As a nation we are hurt by what happened,” Oscar Mabuyane, the head of the Eastern Cape province where East London is located, said in an address.
Drinking in South Africa is permitted for over-18s.
But in township taverns, which are often located close to family homes, safety regulations and drinking-age laws are not always enforced.
Nolitha Tsangani, a Scenery Park resident who lives near the Enyobeni tavern, said blame for the tragedy should be shared.
“We are all wrong… the parent is wrong, the child who is dead, I am sorry to say, is wrong,” she told AFP, though also pointing the finger of blame at the tavern owner and the police.
The tragedy has sparked calls for change.
“Alcohol… should never be a form of entertainment for our kids,” Lucky Ntimane, national convenor of the National Liquor Traders Association told the memorial service.
Ramaphosa suggested a national debate on whether to increase the drinking age to 21, describing alcohol abuse as a “national crisis”.