EAST LONDON, South Africa: South African mourners gathered in the coastal city of East London on Wednesday (Jul 6) to grieve the still-mysterious deaths of 21 teenagers in a poorly ventilated local tavern 10 days ago.
Dressed in black, they sung and danced to solemn gospel songs in front of 19 of the victims’ coffins. All were empty, officials at the funeral parlour said, as police were still investigating the deaths.
The remaining two were buried separately by their families. Some mourners broke down and wept, while others hung their heads solemnly. President Cyril Ramaphosa was expected to attend.
“It is time to find a way to accept what has happened, which we cannot change,” Eastern Cape Premiere Oscar Mabuyane told the mourners. “We will do everything in our power to ensure that a tragedy of this kind does not repeat itself.”
The incident in a popular nightspot in Scenery Park township, outside the city of East London, at the end of last month, provoked an outpouring of sorrow and soul-searching in a nation accustomed to injuries from a heavy-drinking culture.
It has also reignited a debate about South Africa’s stark inequalities, with many, including the billionaire President Ramaphosa himself, pointing out lack of viable sports grounds, youth centres or libraries in townships such as Scenery park.
“Alcohol is a form of escapism for young people in communities were opportunities for safe and age-appropriate recreation are few,” he said in a statement late on Tuesday.
The youngest victim was a 13-year-old girl.
Forensic teams investigating how the youths died have yet to reveal their conclusions. The most likely cause appears to be some kind of chemical or gas leak on the ground floor of the venue, which was packed and had little ventilation.
Another theory authorities have been investigating is that they were poisoned by something they ate, drank or smoked.
Some of the survivors admitted to hospital complained of chest pains. Others spoke of trying to leave in panic as people dropped dead around them, but being unable to find an exit.
“Focus not on the shame and embarrassment around this, but on the grief at the loss,” the preacher, Bathandwa Kwatsha, urged during a prayer for the crying families. “God will comfort you,” she said in the local Xhosa language.