CAPE TOWN (Reuters) – South African authorities investigating 21 teenagers found dead at an east coast tavern over the weekend said on Monday the youths were probably killed by something they ate, drank or smoked, ruling out the earlier-touted possibility of a stampede.
The still unexplained deaths of the teens, some of whom were celebrating the end of school exams and others a birthday party, have brought an outpouring of grief and shocked a nation accustomed to injuries linked to a binge drinking culture.
“It is either something they ingested which will point to poisoning, whether its food or drinks, or it is something they inhaled,” Unathi Binqose, spokesperson for the Eastern Cape’s provincial community safety department said by telephone on Monday. He said hookah pipes were visible in CCTV footage of the scene.
“We are ruling out a stampede completely,” he added, after initial media reports suggested this might be a possible cause of the deaths. Police said 21 had died, one fewer than originally thought.
Eastern Cape police spokesperson Brigadier Tembinkosi Kinana told Reuters that the youngest of the victims was a 13-year-old girl.
Addressing a crowd outside a mortuary in East London on Sunday, an emotional Police Minister Bheki Cele had to pause speaking as he started weeping, triggering a chorus of cries among his audience.
Pictures circulating on social media since Sunday, still unverified by the authorities, showed the bodies of youths lying scattered across the floor of the tavern, some also seen motionless on tables and couches.
Authorities are expected to produce a toxicology report as part of the investigation.
President Cyril Ramaphosa said on Sunday he was worried about the circumstances under which young people, at least some under the age of 18 years, were allowed to gather at the tavern. It is illegal to serve drinks to under-18s in South Africa.
The tavern in question had its liquor license revoked on Monday, Mgwebi Msiya, spokesperson for the Eastern Cape Liquor Board, said.
“We are on our way to the tavern now to serve them with that suspension letter. We want them to stop trading immediately,” he said.
(Reporting by Wendell Roelf; Writing by Tim Cocks; Editing by Peter Graff)