The South African President mourns the death of 21 teenagers in a tavern

EAST LONDON, South Africa — The deaths of 21 teenagers in a tragedy at a nightclub is a crime and South African officials must step up their steps to prevent alcohol from being illegally sold to youths, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said on Wednesday.

“We don’t yet know exactly what killed our children. But we know the law was broken that night, and probably many nights before that,” 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 death and urging officials to bar youths from bars.

“The blame must be laid on those who monetize the dreams and lives of young people in South Africa by breaking the law and selling them alcohol,” he said.

Two rows of caskets in front of Ramaphosa symbolized the lost young lives.

“Today we shed bitter tears for the 21 young people who lost their lives in this tragedy,” Ramaphosa said. “These children should not have died. Her death could have been prevented if the law had been observed.”

Mourning hymns were sung by a large choir as the 19 coffins were carried into a large tent where the service was being held at East London’s Scenery Park community. Two families held private funerals and service organizers said the caskets on display were empty to accommodate requests from some families. The children are to be buried in different cemeteries later on Wednesday and in the coming days, it said.

The tent was filled to the last seat, so many mourners sat outside.

It is still unknown what caused the death of the child, one of whom was only 13 years old, whose bodies were found in the Enyobeni tavern. They were under the legal drinking age of 18 in South Africa, officials said. Pathologists examine the cause of death using blood samples. A stampede was ruled out because the bodies of the victims showed no serious injuries, the police said.

Ramaphosa delivered the eulogy as he faces several challenges including South Africa’s widespread power outages, widespread corruption allegations and questions about large sums of money reportedly hidden in furniture at his own game farm.

“I’ve heard some say I have no business coming here to Scenery Park. Some have said I have bigger problems to solve,” Ramaphosa told the gathering. “But I ask you, 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 alcohol sales to youth.

“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 her,” Nwabisa Booi, a resident of the nearby community of Mdantsane.

“Everyone here is hurt by what happened, but we’re 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 finally accepted her death.

“Honestly, we wished she could just walk through the door. We didn’t really believe it, as if in denial,” Mgangala said.

“But seeing the coffin with her picture on it was painful and helped us release her,” she said.

She said that although many people blamed the parents when the deaths happened, it is now clear that many of the teens had attended the event without their parents’ consent.

“Other parents who were unaffected blamed us and said we had no control over our children. But it is now clear that these children are not listening to us,” Mgangala said.

“I am encouraged that these parents were here today. And many said that the pub owners, who are also parents, should help by refusing to sell them alcohol,” she said. The South African President mourns the death of 21 teenagers in a tavern

Dustin Huang

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