Government officials in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province said at least 21 teenagers were “found dead” at a bar on Sunday morning under unclear circumstances, South Africa’s DispatchLive reported, noting that while the cause of the deaths remains unknown, some have speculated that the youths may have been “exposed to some form of poison.”
DispatchLive said it sent reporters to Enyobeni Tavern in the early morning hours of June 26 after learning that locals had requested “ambulance assistance” at the pub, which is located in the Eastern Cape suburb of Scenery Park.
“At the tavern, bodies are lying strewn across tables, chairs and on the floor; with no obvious signs of injury,” DispatchLive relayed.
Eastern Cape’s provincial government told reporters later on Sunday that “eight girls and 13 boys had died at the tavern. […] Seventeen were found dead at the scene, while the rest died in hospital.”
Local Police Minister Bheki Cele said attendants of a morgue currently housing the victims’ bodies described the youngest casualty as 13 years old, adding that the oldest was 17 years old.
Eastern Cape safety official Unathi Binqose visited Enyobeni Tavern at dawn on June 26 and described seeing “empty bottles of alcohol, wigs and even a pastel purple ‘Happy Birthday’ sash” strewn on the street outside the two-story bar.
“Many of the victims are thought to have been students celebrating the end of their high-school exams on Saturday night [June 25],” Agence France-Presse (AFP) quoted Eastern Cape officials as saying.
Alcohol consumption is legal in South Africa for people aged 18 years and older.
“But in township taverns which are often situated cheek by jowl with family homes, safety regulations and drinking-age laws are not always enforced,” AFP noted on Sunday.
“In South Africa, 25% of young people under the age of 19 binge drinks and 12% of children under the age of 13 have had alcohol. […] South Africa has a high levels of alcohol consumption by global comparison [sic],” the Southern Africa Alcohol Policy Alliance (SAAPA) reported in 2018.
“Currently, the South African government has an annual expenditure of R263 billion on alcohol related harm, which includes domestic violence and interpersonal violence, and road accidents [sic]. Currently, 171 alcohol-related deaths occur every day in South Africa,” SAAPA observed at the time.
The Eastern Cape Liquor Board (ECLB) shut down Enyobeni Tavern on June 27 on suspicion that the bar illegally served alcohol to minors over the weekend in connection with the mass deaths.
“[N]o one is allowed to sell liquor to underage persons. And any person who has done so is in transgression with the law and that transgression is a prosecutable offence — so it is a criminal act,” ECLB representative Zola Tyikwe told South Africa’s Eyewitness News.
An Eastern Cape police investigation into the cause of the 21 deaths at Enyobeni Tavern on June 27 remained ongoing at press time on Monday.