Dressed in black, mourners sung and danced to solemn gospel songs in front of the coffins of 19 of the victims, the youngest of whom was a 13-year-old girl.
By Johnnie Isaac
EAST LONDON – Mourners gathered in East London on Wednesday to grieve the still-mysterious deaths of 21 teenagers in a poorly ventilated local tavern, Enyobeni Tavern, 10 days ago.
Dressed in black, they sung and danced to solemn gospel songs in front of the coffins of 19 of the victims, the youngest of whom was a 13-year-old girl.
All were empty, the funeral parlour said, as police were still investigating the deaths – the remaining two were buried separately by their families.
“Our hearts are broken. There are parents who will not get to hug or kiss their son or daughter again … They each had beautiful dreams. They each had a bright future ahead of them,” President Cyril Ramaphosa said in a speech at the funeral.
“This tragedy has affected all of us as a nation.”
The incident in a popular nightspot in Scenery Park township, at the end of June, provoked an outpouring of sorrow and soul-searching in a nation accustomed to injuries from a heavy-drinking culture.
It has also reignited a debate about the country’s stark inequalities, with many, including the billionaire Ramaphosa himself, pointing out lack of viable sports grounds, youth centres or libraries in townships such as Scenery Park.
“Our young people are tavern-hopping because there is nowhere else for them to go,” he said in his speech.
Some mourners broke down and wept, while others hung their heads solemnly.
“We will do everything in our power to ensure that a tragedy of this kind does not repeat itself,” Eastern Cape Premiere Oscar Mabuyane told the mourners.
Forensic teams investigating how the youths died have yet to reveal their conclusions. The most likely cause appears to be some kind of chemical or gas leak on the ground floor of the venue, which was packed and had little ventilation.
Another theory authorities have been investigating is that they were poisoned by something they ate, drank or smoked.
Some of the survivors admitted to hospital complained of chest pains. Others spoke of trying to leave in panic as people dropped dead around them, but being unable to find an exit.
“Focus not on the shame and embarrassment around this, but on the grief at the loss,” the preacher, Bathandwa Kwatsha, urged during a prayer for the crying families. “God will comfort you,” she said in the local Xhosa language.