Johannesburg, South Africa – A patron who was present as 21 young people mysteriously died at a local nightclub in the early hours of Sunday morning in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province has shed more light on what happened at the scene.
Authorities said, at 4am on Sunday, the local police station received several frantic phone calls from people about the incident at Enyobeni Tavern in Scenery Park, a working-class community in East London city.
The South African Police Service (SAPS) has launched an investigation.
Nine of the deceased were female, according to officials. Among the victims who attended the highly publicised party were young people aged between 13 and 20, a witness told Al Jazeera.
‘It smelled like gas’
*Sinethemba, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, said she and a few of her friends were present when the bar started to fill up that morning.
The 17-year-old, a class 12 student at a local high school, told Al Jazeera that they attended the party because they were informed that two local soap opera “celebrities” would be hosting it.
The young woman had waited for her parents to go to sleep before sneaking out and claimed that when the nightclub became too overcrowded, people were asked to leave. When the partygoers did not comply, one of the security guards closed the door and began spraying a substance into the crowd, she said.
“The man at the door, I think he was a bouncer, he closed the door and we couldn’t breathe. We suffocated for a long time and [were] pushing each other but there was no use because some people were dying,” she said.
“It smelled like gas. I’m not sure if it was tear gas or pepper spray. Then some people died and I also fell asleep for three hours. Then when they woke us up, they also thought I was dead,” she continued.
Sinethemba said when she awoke, her leg was numb and she could not stand up on her own. She then asked a patron to call her aunt so that she could be picked up.
Children below the age of 18 are legally considered minors in South Africa and are not allowed to buy or consume alcohol.
Sinethemba confirmed that she, her friends, and the other young patrons of Enyobeni Tavern were exposed to underage drinking there.
In a statement sent to Al Jazeera on Sunday evening Oscar Mabuyane, the Eastern Cape’s premier, called for “greater parental and community involvement and vigilance in monitoring not only taverns and nightclubs operating within communities but also in monitoring the maintenance of general law and order in their communities”.
The distraught teenager says that she lost two of her friends. Authorities have not released the names of the victims to the public, while families continue to identify their loved ones at the Brookwood Mortuary in East London.
Attempts to get in touch with the business owner, Siyakhangela Ngevu, for a comment were unsuccessful.
Eastern Cape executive council member Weziwe Tikana-Gxothiwe told local broadcaster eNCA on Sunday, that the tavern owner “has welcomed the advice to close his establishment and will close until further notice” while investigations take place.
As of Monday, the area was still closed off to the public as forensic experts and law enforcement searched the small one-storey nightclub for clues.
President Cyril Ramaphosa expressed his condolences in a statement on Sunday. He said he expected the law to take its course following the investigation into the tragedy. Given the young ages of the victims, he described the situation as “concerning”.
“This tragedy is made even more grave by its occurrence during Youth Month – a time during which we celebrate young people, advocate and advance opportunities for improved socioeconomic conditions for the youth of our nation,” Ramaphosa added.
In response to inquiries about potential criminal charges against the bar owner, Police Minister Bheki Cele said, “We have an experienced team that is complementing the provincial team to ensure that we get to the bottom of what has led to the death of these young people. We are also engaging other stakeholders to investigate issues of compliance to liquor legislation.”