At least 21 young people were found dead at a nightclub under mysterious circumstances in a township in South Africa’s southern city of East London.
Brigadier Tembinkosi Kinana said on Sunday police were alerted by members of the public to the incident at Scenery Park.
“The circumstances under which they died are under investigation,” Kinana said, adding it was too early to determine the cause of death of the young adults aged between 18 and 20 years.
The bodies will be transported to state mortuaries where relatives are expected to help identify the victims, said Siyanda Manana, a spokesperson for the Eastern Cape provincial health department.
“We are going to immediately be embarking on autopsies so we can know the probable cause of death,” he said. “We are talking 22 bodies right now.”
National Police Minister Bheki Cele broke down in tears after emerging from a morgue where the bodies were being stored.
“It’s a terrible scene,” he told reporters. “They are pretty young. When you are told they are 13 years, 14 years and you go there and you see them. It breaks [you].”
‘No visible open wounds’
Local television showed police officers trying to calm a crowd of people gathered outside the club in the city, which lies on the Indian Ocean coast, nearly 1,000km (620 miles) south of the commercial capital, Johannesburg.
Unathi Binqose, an Eastern Cape community and safety department official, speaking from the scene, ruled out a stampede as the cause of death.
“It’s difficult to believe it’s a stampede as there are no visible open wounds to those dead,” Binqose said. “Parents whose children did not sleep home are gathered here and they want to enter the tavern to look for their loved ones.”
He said he understood the patrons were students “celebrating pens down, a party held after writing [high school] exams”.
A regional local newspaper, DispatchLive, reported that “bodies are lying strewn across tables, chairs and on the floor; with no obvious signs of injury”.
‘Everyone is angry’
Expressing his condolences to affected families, President Cyril Ramaphosa said he was worried about the circumstances under which young people, potentially under the age of 18 years, were allowed to gather at the tavern. Ramaphosa said in a statement the law must take its course once investigations conclude.
“The call is on the parents to see that their kids are kept well, the call is on the community to say we can’t allow our kids to die,” Bheki Cele, the national police minister, told a large crowd near the scene during an impromptu visit broadcast live on television.
A 17-year-old girl, who only gave her name as “Lolly” and lived close to the tavern, said the venue was a popular hangout with teenagers, but the community wanted it shut down after the tragedy.
“Everyone wants it closed down because they sell alcohol to underage children. Everyone is angry, everyone is sad because of what happened,” she said.