People at the mass funeral in July for 21 young victims of the tavern tragedy in East London, South Africa. Some parents are unhappy with investigation. Photo: Phill Magakoe/AFP via Getty Images.
Parents of 21 teenagers who died in mysterious circumstances in a crowded South African bar have criticised a report that concluded they all suffocated. Families were told on Friday by health officials that a toxicology report into the deaths at the Enyobeni Tavern in the coastal city of East London found they died from suffocation due to “friction” caused by dancing in the overcrowded bar.
Apart from a limited briefing given to parents, officials have refused to publish the report into the incident in June, citing legal reasons and patient confidentiality.The youngest to die was aged 13 and the rest of those who died were under 18. The deaths at the bar where hundreds of teenagers were celebrating the end of mid term exams shocked the country and increased calls for action against underage drinking. At a mass funeral for the victims in July, South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa said: “Each and every one of them had a beautiful soul. They each had beautiful dreams. They each had a bright future ahead of them.”But many of their parents are angry that the investigation into their children’s deaths has lacked credibility. “I don’t think they suffocated, something else happened,” Khululekile Ncandana, the father of 17-year-old son Bongolethu, who died at the tavern, told VICE World News.
Bongolethu was one of six teammates from a local amateur football side who went to the bar with others to celebrate the end of mid-term exams on the 26th of June. He and another player, Mbulelo Rangile, did not survive. Ncandana is one of many parents who have spoken out against the way the authorities have acted since the tragedy. “We don’t trust this conclusion,” he said. “We are not happy about the way the authorities have handled it. We hope that they will call some of the survivors to testify about what really happened there.”
The suffocation conclusion appears to contradict earlier findings. Several survivors after the incident reported seeing an unidentified gas, which could have been pepper spray or tear gas, being sprayed inside the bar, possibly by bouncers who wanted guests to leave, choking customers before the tragedy unfolded. The gas theory was also suggested early on by government pathologist Dr Solomon Zondi. Initial toxicology and autopsy results in July found traces of methanol in the victims’ blood. Methanol is often found in potentially toxic counterfeit alcohol, and around 50 grams is lethal to humans. Fake alcohol, which includes wrongly branded products and illegally made home-brewed liquor often made with methanol, is a £1 billion industry in South Africa, where almost a quarter of alcohol sold is illegal. During COVID lockdown several people died in the country after drinking home made alcohol containing methanol, although deaths from illicit alcohol poisoning are rare. The initial report ruled out binge-drinking, carbon monoxide poisoning and a stampede as causes of the deaths, with none of the bodies having injuries associated with trampling, which is a major cause of suffocation in deaths involving overcrowding. Parents are unhappy that the detail of the report into the deaths has been kept from public view by the Eastern Cape health department. “It’s surprising us because they said they would release the report to us parents and then it would go public. Because what happened in that bar, it’s a public thing, the whole world knew about it, so people want to know. Now all of a sudden it is confidential. There should be nothing confidential about this.”
Ncandana said parents were seeking legal advice on how to challenge the conclusions and non-disclosure of the toxicology report.Siyanda Manana, spokesman for the Eastern Cape health department, said it was not in the department’s “mandate” to give parents the full report, which was not being disclosed for legal reasons. The owners of the Enyobeni Tavern, Siyakhangela and Vuyokazi Ndevu, are due to appear in court later this week on charges of selling alcohol to under 18s. Less than a week after the deaths they were pictured removing the bar’s alcohol stock under police guard for “safekeeping”. Mehdi Moussaïd, a research scientist specialising in crowds at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, said: “People can indeed die of suffocation in crowded places. However, it has to be really crowded. Above seven people per square metre. The bodies are so densely packed that individuals cannot breathe anymore. They often faint and suffocate. I don't know if the density reached that threshold in this tragedy.”