South African authorities were seeking answers Monday after 21 underage teenagers reportedly celebrating the end of school exams died in a mysterious incident at a nightclub. The bodies of many of the victims, the youngest just 13, were discovered by police lying on tables, slumped over chairs and sprawled on the floor of the club in the early hours of Sunday morning.
Police spokeswoman Col. Athlenda Mathe said the investigation into the deaths at the Enyobeni Tavern in the city of East London in Eastern Cape province was ongoing and no cause of the deaths had yet been established.
But Police Minister Bheki Cele said forensic samples taken from the victims were being sent to a toxicology laboratory in Cape Town, indicating that police were investigating whether the victims had ingested a poison or toxin. Cele said the toxicology tests might take “a lot of time.”
Provincial safety official Unathi Binqose told the Daily Maverick newspaper that the victims may have ingested a toxic substance through alcohol they were drinking or through hookah pipes, which were being smoked at the party. Initial reports speculated that the teenagers may have died in a stampede because of overcrowding at the party, but authorities found no visible signs of injuries on the bodies.
Police said they were called to the nightclub at around 4 a.m. Sunday morning after receiving a report that there were “lifeless bodies” there. Officers responding to the call walked in on a grim scene: 17 teenagers were found dead on the spot. Two more died at a local clinic, one died on the way to the hospital and one at the hospital. Their ages were between 13 and 17, police said.
The teenagers were reportedly celebrating the end of mid-year exams, a local DJ’s birthday and the relaxing of COVID-19 restrictions in South Africa, which was announced earlier in the week.
Parents were asked to come to a mortuary to identify their children.
Police Minister Cele visited the nightclub and the mortuary on Sunday and choked back tears as he spoke to reporters outside the mortuary.
“The scene I have seen here inside, it doesn’t matter what kind of a heart you have,” Cele said. “Firstly, the sight of those bodies sleeping there. But when you look at their faces you realize that you’re dealing with kids, kids, kids.”
“You’ve heard the story that they are young but when you see them you realize that it’s a disaster. Twenty-one of them. Too many.”
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who is in Germany for the G7 summit, offered condolences to the families of the victims in a statement but also said he was concerned why “such young people were gathered at a venue which, on the face of it, should be off limits to persons under the age of 18.”
It’s illegal for anyone under 18 to consume alcohol in South Africa and residents and community leaders have called for the nightclub to be shut down. The tragedy will put renewed scrutiny on the many bars and nightclubs operating in poor neighborhoods in South Africa and which are often criticized for not abiding by liquor laws.