Police forensic teams in South Africa are investigating the deaths of 22 young people at a nightclub and bar in the southern coastal town of East London.
Specialists have yet to establish the cause of the tragedy, which occurred during end of school year celebrations by teenagers. Local residents raised the alarm at around 4am, officials said.
Bheki Cele, the police minister, tried to calm an angry crowd of relatives and residents at the cordoned-off crime site at Enyobeni Tavern in a poor neighbourhood known as Scenery Park.
“At first, we were told that this was a stampede, but by the looks of things, there was no stampede that took place,” Cele said.
“I do not want to speculate on the cause of death; that’s why we brought the top forensic team so that if the cause of death was some poison, they will let us know.”
Toxicology tests will established if the casualties were poisoned, officials said.
The exact circumstances of the tragedy remain unclear. A regional newspaper, DispatchLive, said its reporters had seen bodies “lying bizarrely, as if they collapsed to the floor suddenly while dancing or in the middle of a conversation, some seemingly in the social circles they were engaging with” along with “other bodies are slumped across chairs and lying over tables”.
Unverified pictures shared on social media showed bodies with no visible signs of injuries, lying on the floor of the club.
Autopsies are expected to give a clearer idea of what happened in the nightclub, which was reported to be very crowded.
The Eastern Cape provincial community and safety department official Unathi Binqose, speaking from the scene, ruled out a stampede as a cause of the deaths.
“It’s difficult to believe it’s a stampede as there are no visible open wounds to those dead,” said Binqose.
Local television showed police officers trying to calm a crowd of parents and onlookers gathered outside the club.
“Parents whose children did not sleep home are gathered here and they want to enter the tavern to look for their loved ones,” said Binqose.
He said he understood the patrons were students “celebrating pens down, a party held after writing [high school] exams”.
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.
Many such venues exist in both urban and rural areas in South Africa, and often flout licensing laws. Overstretched police forces and local government officials often turn a blind eye to such law-breaking, sometimes in return for bribes.
Cele said he had been told that the tavern was known for underage drinking and told local parents they needed to take responsibility for their children.
“We need to check if they adhere to the laws but that is on us as police to ensure this happens. [But] 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,” he said.
President Cyril Ramaphosa offered his condolences to families and 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.