South Africa's Enyobeni Tavern deaths: Tears for teenagers at mass funeral

By Nomsa Maseko
BBC News, East London

  • Published
Women mourning at the funeral in East London, South Africa - 6 July 2022Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Many of the mourners are overcome with grief

Wails of grief have filled a mass funeral for teenagers in South Africa who died in mysterious circumstances at a nightclub.

Nineteen empty coffins were laid out before thousands of mourners - including South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa - in East London.

The children died 10 days ago at Enyobeni Tavern attending a party to celebrate the end of mid-year exams.

The youngest of the 21 victims was a 13-year-old girl.

The toxicology report is yet to be concluded, but forensic pathologists have suggested their deaths were caused by something they inhaled or ingested.

The outpouring of grief and shock over their deaths has also brought renewed calls for the legal drinking age to be increased from 18 to 21 in a country that has a reputation for teenage and binge drinking.

Each coffin has a photo of one of the victims in a 3,000-seater marquee in East London, a city in Eastern Cape Province. The coffins have been left empty for cultural reasons

Two of the teenagers have already been laid to rest, while the others will be buried separately over the next few days.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
The coffins are empty - each has a photo of one of the young victims attached to it

Wearing a black outfit with her hands on her head, one of the relatives wailed "Oh umtanam umkile nyani" (Oh my child is really gone) as the service got under way.

Pupils, some in school uniform and others wearing T-shirts bearing the faces of the victims, are also here to remember their friends.

Image source, AFP
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Medical personnel were on hand to assist the distraught

President Ramaphosa said the tragedy had shocked the nation: "Our hearts are broken. We have lost our children here.

"Each and every one of them had a beautiful soul. They each had beautiful dreams. They each had a bright future ahead of them."

"Yesterday Lilitha Methuko would have celebrated her 17th birthday, and she told her mother she was planning to buy two cakes to celebrate," the president said about one of them.

He acknowledged that the families needed to know how their children had died and urged the police to conclude their investigation as soon as possible.

"It is sinful that there are people out there who are blaming the parents, who are blaming the young people for going there... The families do want closure, they want to know what happened to their children."

Relatives have been taking turns to read obituaries, sharing nicknames and other endearing memories.

One has said: "We were hoodwinked by your death, we had high hopes for your bright future and that you'd pull your family out of poverty but you have now perished."

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
President Cyril Ramaphosa urged the police to finish their investigations

One of the relatives looked at President Ramaphosa and said: "Mr President, we are tired, the black nation is fast perishing right before our eyes."

The fact that the cause of the deaths is yet to be determined has left families angry and frustrated.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Obituaries are being read to the mourners, sharing nicknames and other endearing memories

Investigators took four days to gather forensic evidence inside Enyobeni Tavern.

The BBC understands they viewed more than eight hours of CCTV footage to fully understand what transpired when hundreds of people, mostly teenagers, attended what students call a "pens down" celebration.

No arrests have been made. The tavern has been temporarily shut down and the liquor trading licence for the owners has been suspended.

But Police Minister Bheki Cele assured those gathered that action would be taken.

"I want this funeral service to be a peaceful day but that doesn't mean that a war is not coming," he said.

Image source,
Image caption,
Photos of the children who died were displayed at the funeral

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