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A concerned relative speaks to the media outside the tavern in Scenery Park where least 22 young people are said to have lost their lives in the early hours of Sunday morning in East London Picture: DAILY DISPATCH/MARK ANDREWS
A concerned relative speaks to the media outside the tavern in Scenery Park where least 22 young people are said to have lost their lives in the early hours of Sunday morning in East London Picture: DAILY DISPATCH/MARK ANDREWS

Authorities are investigating the deaths of at least 22 young people found inside a popular tavern in the coastal town of East London, provincial health officials and the presidency said on Sunday.

State broadcaster SABC reported the deaths resulted from a possible stampede, but was scant on details as the exact cause of death remained unknown.

The bodies will be transported to state mortuaries where relatives are expected to help identify both male and female victims, said Siyanda Manana, a spokesperson for the Eastern Cape provincial health department.

“We are going to immediately be embarking on autopsies so we can know the probable cause of death,” he told Reuters as forensic personnel continued their work at the cordoned-off crime site at Enyobeni Tavern.

“We are talking 22 bodies right now,” Manana said, adding that toxicology tests were part of the examination.

SA Police Services’ Brig Tembinkosi Kinana said they were informed of the incident at about 4am after a call from community members.

“Inquest dockets have been registered for further investigation,” Kinana said.

The youngest victim is said to be 13 years old.

President Cyril Ramaphosa said he was worried about the circumstances under which young people, potentially under the age of 18 years, were allowed to gather at the tavern. Ramaphosa said in a statement the law must take its course once investigations conclude.

“The call is on the parents to see that their kids are kept well, the call is on the community to say we can’t allow our kids to die,” Bheki Cele, the national police minister, told a large crowd in Scenery Park during an impromptu visit broadcast live on television.

“I stay with my boy who is in university in Cape Town. He came back home after 11pm on Friday night and I sat him down and told him you don’t come home after 11pm,” Cele said, adding that every parent had a responsibility to parent their children.

A 17-year-old girl, who gave her name as “Lolly” and lived close to the tavern, told Reuters the venue was a popular hangout with teenagers, but the community wanted it shut down after the tragedy.

“Everyone wants it closed down because they sell alcohol to under-age children. Everyone is angry, everyone is sad because of what happened,” she said.

Liquor Traders Association spokesperson Lucky Ntimane on Sunday told television news channel eNCA that the owner of the tavern had broken the cardinal rule of not selling liquor to minors under 18.

Kinana said police were alerted by members of the public to the incident in Scenery Park, about 3km from the city centre.

“What has happened can be equated to a massacre,” East London mayor Xola Pakati said in a statement.

Cele said they initially received reports that a stampede had occurred but said evidence on the scene ruled this theory out.

“But I cannot disclose to you what happened until I have been told by the investigating team,” he said.

He, however, pointed out faults they found at the tavern, including that it had only one entry and exit point, was in a residential area and was seemingly open to underage children.

“We have brought in a special forensic team from the police in Pretoria. They are a top team that will tell us if it was poison but we need to come back to this area to see what is happening in the shebeens and not only come back once they have killed our kids,” Cele said.

With TimesLIVE

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