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Ramaphosa backs calls to up legal drinking age to 21 after tavern tragedy

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Combative throughout his sombre eulogy, President Cyril Ramaphosa says he backs the call to revise the country’s legal drinking age from 18 to 21.

President Cyril Ramaphosa was among the leaders attending the mass funeral service of 21 young people in Scenery Park, East London, on Wednesday. Picture: Henk Kruger/African News Agency (ANA)

EAST LONDON – Combative throughout his sombre eulogy, President Cyril Ramaphosa says he backs the call to revise the country’s legal drinking age from 18 to 21, adding the matter should now be a “national debate”.

Ramaphosa said this on Wednesday while delivering a eulogy during the grief-engulfed mass funeral of some of the 21 victims of the Enyobeni Tavern tragedy, which happened in the early hours of June 26.

That was when pupils who were partying in the infamous tavern located within Scenery Park in East London, in the Eastern Cape, perished under circumstances that are yet to be explained.

To curb the scourge of alcohol abuse in the country, Ramaphosa believes that the move to revise the legal drinking age could be a solution to the challenge of underage children having unfettered access to liquor.

“A number of people have been sending messages to me, saying ‘president maybe the legal age of alcohol should now be lifted to 21 rather than where it is (18)’. Now, clearly, I want this to be a national debate … let us discuss it so that we can arrive at a consensus,” he said, getting instant approval from a large section of the mourners.

Furthermore, Ramaphosa repeated his earlier assertion when he started speaking to mourners that he was not in the position to judge anyone – including the deceased.

However, he said aggressive marketing that glorifies alcohol drinking is one of the things that leads to binge drinking, which he said is prevalent among the youth.

Turning to society, Ramaphosa said in our culture, raising a child is a societal duty, hence adults have to guide them when they go astray. Adults must reprimand them; equally, they must reprimand other adults who lead children astray.

He stressed that turning a blind eye is a big no if the country wants to raise children to become responsible adults.

In his eulogy, Ramaphosa laid the blame squarely on the doors of unscrupulous liquor traders and distributors – among others.

“There is blame to be laid, I am able to say, yes, from the national government there is blame on us, provincial government, local government, the police, the taverners, the tavern owners and all that. There is blame … blame must be laid at the feet of those who are making money off the dreams and the lives of young people of South Africa by breaking the law and selling alcohol to underage children.”

He said it is not the first time the country experienced a tragedy like the one at Enyobeni Tavern. He recounted one that happened in Khayelitsha in Cape Town in 2015 in which eight young women died while partying at Oasis Tavern.

He also recalled the Throb nightclub disaster in Durban where 13 children died and hundreds were injured while partying when they were not supposed to be allowed in.

During that incident, he said violations of liquor laws turned out to be the cause of the tragedy similar to the Enyobeni one that has attracted the world’s attention.

“What is common to all these is that they were selling and serving alcohol to underage patrons in violation of the law,” he said.

He concluded his lengthy speech by telling the mourning families that they are with them and they feel their pain. Signing off, he assured them that action will be taken after the tragedy claimed 21 lives and shocked the world.

Speaking at the same funeral, the Minister of Police, Bheki Cele, who has locked horns with the relatives of the victims over his comment that parents must take responsibility, said heads will roll.

He said even if it was members of the SAPS or anyone in power, there will be consequences for them.

“Today is dedicated to peace to ensure that these kids are laid to rest in peace. But, Mr President, we must come back to stage a fight, fight among ourselves and all of us.

“No one here will be spared, from the national government, provincial government, in the municipality, in the police, liquor licence authorities, shebeen owners and alcohol producers. All of us must come back to provide answers regarding this,” Cele said in Zulu.

Dr Litha Matiwane from the Eastern Cape Department of Health, which is working with the police to investigate the cause of the death, said the probe is still on.

He said a stampede has been ruled out and said the speculations about that must stop.

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