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The mystery of how 21 teenagers died in South African tavern

Initial reports suggested that a stampede may have been the cause of the multiple deaths, but new evidence has come to light, authorities say.

Police are seen outside a township pub in South Africa's southern city of East London on June 26, 2022, after 20 teenagers died inside. - At least 20 teenagers, the youngest aged just 13 years, have died at a township pub in South Africa's southern city of East London, but the cause of the deaths is still unclear. Crowds of people including parents whose children were missing gathered outside the tavern located along a street in a residential township as mortuary vehicles collected bodies, according to an AFP correspondent. (Photo by AFP) (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images)

South African authorities investigating the deaths of 21 teenagers discovered over the weekend at an east coast tavern said on Monday that the youths were most likely killed by something they ate, drank, or smoked, ruling out the earlier-mentioned possibility of a stampede.

Food, drink or smoke likely killed them

The deaths of the teenagers, some of whom were celebrating the end of their school exams and others a birthday party, sparked an outpouring of grief and shocked a nation accustomed to injuries associated with a binge drinking culture. ‘It is either something they ingested which will point to poisoning, whether it’s food or drinks, or it is something they inhaled,’ said Unathi Binqose, a spokesperson for the Eastern Cape’s provincial community safety department, by phone on Monday. According to him, hookah pipes were visible in CCTV footage of the scene. ‘We are completely ruling out a stampede,’ he added, after initial media reports suggested this could be the cause of the deaths.

Police reported that 21 people had died, one fewer than had been previously reported. According to Eastern Cape police spokesperson Brigadier Tembinkosi Kinana, the youngest victim was a 13-year-old girl. On Sunday, while speaking to a crowd outside a mortuary in East London, Police Minister Bheki Cele had to pause to cry, eliciting a chorus of cries from his audience.

Images that have been circulating on social media since Sunday, but have yet to be verified by authorities, show the bodies of youths scattered across the floor of the tavern, with some also seen motionless on tables and couches. As part of the investigation, authorities are expected to produce a toxicology report. President Cyril Ramaphosa expressed concern on Sunday about the conditions under which young people, at least some of whom were under the age of 18, were permitted to congregate at the tavern. It is illegal in South Africa to serve alcohol to minors under the age of 18.

According to Mgwebi Msiya, spokesperson for the Eastern Cape Liquor Board, the tavern’s liquor license was revoked on Monday. ‘We are on our way to the tavern now to serve them with that suspension letter. We want them to stop trading immediately,’ he said.


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