EAST LONDON, South Africa (AP) – The death of 21 teenagers in a nightclub tragedy is a crime and South African officials should take more action to prevent alcohol being sold illegally to young people, the South African said President Cyril Ramaphosa Wednesday.
“We don’t yet know exactly what killed our children. But we do know that the law was broken that night, and probably many nights before,” Ramaphosa told more than a thousand mourners at the funeral in east London for the young people who died in a tavern nearly two weeks ago.
“We are losing our future generation to the scourge of underage drinking,” the president said, urging police to determine the exact cause of their deaths and calling on officials to prevent young people from accessing bars.
“The blame should be placed on those who make money from the dreams and lives of young people in South Africa by breaking the law and selling them alcohol,” he said.
Two rows of coffins for Ramaphosa symbolized the young lives lost.
“Today we shed bitter tears for the 21 young people who died in this tragedy,” Ramaphosa said. “These children should not have died. Their deaths could have been prevented if the law had been followed.”
Sorrowful hymns were sung by a large choir as the 19 coffins were carried to a large tent where the service was being held in East London’s Scenery Park borough. Two families held private funerals and the organizers of the service said the coffins on display were empty, in accordance with the wishes of some families. The children will be buried in various cemeteries later Wednesday and over the next few days, they said.
The tent was so packed that many mourners sat outside.
It is still unknown what caused the deaths of the children, one as young as 13, whose bodies were found in the Enyobeni tavern. They were under 18 in South Africa, officials said. Pathologists study the cause of death using blood samples. A stampede has been ruled out because the victims’ bodies showed no serious injuries, police said.
Ramaphosa delivered the eulogy as he faced several challenges, including South Africa’s prolonged power outages, extensive corruption allegations and questions about large amounts of cash allegedly hidden in furniture at his own game farm.
“I’ve heard some say I have no business in Scenery Park. Some have said I need to solve bigger problems,” Ramaphosa told the meeting. “But I ask them, what is more important in this country and on this earth than the lives of our children?”
Local residents were skeptical of calls by Ramaphosa and other officials for effective action to stop the sale of alcohol to young people.
“Whatever they said today, it will end today. Those are the promises they always make, especially our president. It will be the last day we see them,” said Nwabisa Booi, a resident of the nearby township of Mdantsane.
“Everyone here is hurt about what happened, but we are still looking for answers about what happened to our children,” Booi said.
Ntombizonke Mgangala, the aunt of 17-year-old Sinothando Mgangala who died in the tragedy, said the family had finally accepted her death.
“Honestly, we wished she could just walk through the door. We didn’t really believe it, like we were in denial,” Mgangala said.
“But when we saw the coffin with her photo on it, it was painful and helped us release her,” she said.
She said that while many people blamed the parents when the deaths occurred, it is now clear that many of the teens attended the event without their parents’ permission.
“Other parents who were not affected blamed us and said we have no control over our children. But it is now clear that these children are not listening to us,” Mgangala said.
“I am encouraged that those parents were here today. And many said the innkeepers, who are also parents, should help by refusing to sell them liquor,” she said.