A patron who was present when 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 further light on what happened at the scene.
Authorities said the local police station received several panicked calls from people at 4 a.m. Sunday about the incident at the Enyobeni Tavern in Scenery Park, a working-class community in east London.
The South African Police (SAPS) has launched an investigation.
Nine of the dead were female, according to officials. Among the victims who attended the much-discussed party were young people between 13 and 20, a witness told Al Jazeera.
‘It smelled like gas.’
*Inaminkosi, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, said she and some of her friends were there when the bar started to fill up that morning.
The 17-year-old, a 12th-grade student at a local high school, told Al Jazeera they were attending the party because they had been told two local soap “celebrities” would be hosting it.
The young woman had waited for her parents to sleep before sneaking out, claiming that when the nightclub became too full, people were asked to leave. When the partygoers disobeyed, one of the guards closed the door and sprayed a substance into the crowd, she said.
“The guy at the door, I think he was a bouncer, he closed the door, and we couldn’t breathe. We were suffocating for a long time and [were] pushing each other, but it was no use because some people were dying,” she said.
“It smelled like gasoline. Not sure if it was tear gas or pepper spray. Then some people died, and I also fell asleep for three hours. When they woke us up, they thought I was dead too,” she continued.
Inaminkosi said that when she woke up, her leg was numb, and she couldn’t get up alone. She then asked a patron to call her aunt so she could be picked up.
Children under 18 are legally considered minors in South Africa and cannot purchase or consume alcohol.
Imaninkosi confirmed that she, her friends, and the other young customers of Enyobeni Tavern were exposed to underage drinking.
In a statement sent to Al Jazeera on Sunday evening, Eastern Cape Prime Minister Oscar Mabuyane called for “greater involvement of parents and the community and vigilance in overseeing not just taverns and nightclubs that operate within communities, but also in overseeing the maintenance of general law and order in their communities.”
The troubled teen says she has lost two friends, Esinako Malangeni and Nathi Ngqoza. Authorities have not released the victims’ names to the public as families continue to identify their loved ones at the Brookwood Mortuary in east London.
Attempts to contact the business owner, Siyakhangela Ngevu, for comment were unsuccessful.
Weziwe Tikana-Gxothiwe, a member of the Eastern Cape’s executive council, told local broadcaster eNCA that the tavern’s owner “has welcomed the advice to close his establishment and will close until further notice” as investigations take place.
On Monday, the area remained closed to the public as forensic experts and law enforcement officers searched the small one-story nightclub for clues.
President Cyril Ramaphosa expressed his condolences in a statement on Sunday. He said he expected the law to run its course after the investigation into the tragedy. Given the young age of the victims, he described the situation as “concerned”.
“This tragedy is made even more serious by the occurrence during Youth Month – a time when we celebrate young people, advocate for and promote opportunities for improved socioeconomic conditions for our nation’s youth,” Ramaphosa added.
Responding to questions about possible criminal charges against the bar owner, Police Minister Bheki Cele said: “We have an experienced team complementing the provincial team to ensure we get to the bottom of what led to this youngster’s death. people… We are also engaging other stakeholders to investigate issues with liquor compliance.”