SA holds state funeral for 21 club victims as gov’t is criticised

Thousands of mourners were in attendance, including government officials, schoolmates of the victims and people from neighbouring communities. 

South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa
South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa during a European Union - African Union summit, in Brussels, Belgium February 18, 2022. [File: Johanna Geron/Reuters] (Reuters)

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has called for swift prosecution of anyone culpable in the deaths of 21 young people – mostly underage – at a nightclub in Scenery Park, a working-class community in the South African coastal city of East London.

The youngsters had died on Sunday night while inside the Enyobeni Tavern nightclub in the city, which lies on the Indian Ocean coast, nearly 1,000km (620 miles) south of the commercial capital, Johannesburg.

Ramaphosa delivered the eulogy at a symbolic state funeral of the victims, whose ages range from 13 to 20, on Wednesday.

The youngest victim at the Enyobeni Tavern, Thembinkosi Silwane, was just 13 years old.

Thousands of mourners were in attendance including government officials, schoolmates of the victims and people from neighbouring communities.

Nineteen empty coffins filled a large marquee, as a majority of the families opted to hold private funerals later in the week. Only two young victims were laid to rest on Wednesday; one other victim was buried on Tuesday.

Ramaphosa called it “shameful” that some community members blame the parents of the young victims and the victims themselves for going to the club where they then died.

“The blame must lay on the feet of those who are putting profits before the lives of the children of this country. There are unscrupulous businesses that are selling alcohol to minors, luring children to these places with the promises of free booze and aggressive marketing,” said Ramaphosa.

“One in four South Africans have consumed alcohol by the age of 15,” said Ramaphosa. “Now is the time for the nation to confront this issue and we must now draw the line,” he said. “There will be permanent closure of businesses that are found selling alcohol to minors.”

The Minister of Police Bheki Cele was scathing in his comments, telling the mourners that, “We want this day to be a peaceful day but that does not mean that the war isn’t coming.”

“No one must survive, from the national government, provincial government, the municipality, police officers, liquor license regulators and tavern owners,” said Cele. “Someone, somewhere must answer for this.”

Waiting for results

The Eastern Cape Liquor Board, a government entity that regulates the selling and manufacturing of liquor, filed a criminal complaint against the owners of Enyobeni Tavern, Siyakhangela and his wife, Vuyokazi Ndevu, shortly after the incident for allegedly selling alcohol to minors.

The results of the investigations into the causes of the victims’ deaths are still pending and the South African Police Services (SAPS) have not made any arrests.

“‪We are waiting for forensic results, remember that this is a process so it will take some time,” National Police Commissioner Fannie Sehlahle told Al Jazeera. “The department of health is responsible for the forensic side of the investigation and the toxicology reports.”

A witness told Al Jazeera last week that when the venue got too crowded, the security guards started asking people to leave, while a sizable crowd outside was trying to force themselves inside to join the party.

When the mostly teenage crowd inside the nightclub did not comply, the 17-year-old survivor alleged that a security guard closed the doors and discharged a chemical substance into the air.

Her account has since been corroborated by other witnesses, with one 14-year-old survivor telling a local news outlet TimesLIVE that a “strong and suffocating smell erupted at the venue”.

“I’m not sure what was sprayed there, but some said security sprayed something,” she said, “I’m having flashbacks of seeing some of the people who died right in front of my eyes. I’ve never seen this in my life.”

According to the survivors, they experienced choking, breathing difficulties, trembling in their knees, and they watched their friends die.

‘Government acting as if they care’

Opposition parties and civil society are calling the funeral “culturally insensitive” and an attempt by the “ANC government to mask their failures to enforce the law”.

Vuyo Zungula, an opposition lawmaker and president of the Africa Transformation Movement party said it was an abuse of power by the authorities.

“In our culture, you don’t do a funeral for television and political grandstanding,” he told Al Jazeera. “It should have been called a memorial service as the families have chosen to bury their children in private.”

“Our police system is ineffective and that is the root cause of all the criminality that we see,” Zungula added. “In the Scenery Park community alone, there are other taverns operating illegally, and selling alcohol to minors, not to mention all over the country. There is simply no enforcement of the law and until another tragedy strikes, we will continue to see the police and the government acting as if they care.”

Phinah Kodisang, head of Johannesburg-based nonprofit Soul City Institute for Social Justice said incidents like the Enyobeni Tavern tragedy happen in a specific manner across racial and class lines is a reminder of South Africa’s lack of transformation.

“When the young people we work with across South Africa conducted audits in their mostly Black communities, they found that in some cases, there are more alcohol retailers than there are libraries and recreation centres in two regions,” said Kodisang.

“This shows the structural factors that not only enable but also encourage drinking as entertainment and a way of life. As South Africa still battles to adequately address the consequences of apartheid, implementing policies that would protect young people, such as stricter alcohol policies, is necessary and urgent,” she said.

Source: Al Jazeera