South African authorities are still seeking answers days after 21 underage teenagers partying after the end of school exams died in a mysterious incident at a tavern.
As reported earlier, the bodies of many of the victims, the youngest a 13-year-old girl, were discovered by police lying on tables, slumped in chairs and couches, and sprawled on the dancefloor of the club in the wee hours of Sunday morning.
“They died as they danced,” Police Minister Bheki Cele said. “They dance, fall, and die. Literally.”
Speculation has swirled over the cause of the tragedy, starting with a stampede — that was ruled out — to a possible gas leak. Police have sent forensic samples from the victims to a toxicology laboratory to investigate if the teens ingested poison or a toxin at the party.
The teenagers were reportedly celebrating the end of mid-year exams, a local DJ’s birthday and the relaxing of some of the last COVID-19 restrictions in South Africa, which was announced earlier in the week.
Parents were asked to go to a mortuary to identify their children. The Eastern Cape health department said there were survivors being treated in the hospital for backache, tight chests, vomiting and headaches.
Police Minister Cele said the teenagers died between 2 a.m. and 4.30 a.m. Sunday morning. He had also visited the nightclub and the mortuary on Sunday and choked back tears as he spoke to reporters.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who is in Germany for the G-7 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 or buy alcohol in South Africa and the Eastern Cape Liquor Board said it was revoking the nightclub’s liquor license and would pursue criminal charges against the club’s license holder.
The tragedy will put renewed scrutiny on the many bars and nightclubs operating in the backstreets of poor neighborhoods in South Africa and which are often criticized for not abiding by liquor laws.