Methanol was found in the blood samples from all the deceased, but tests are still being done to determine whether it was at a lethal level, said Dr Litha Matiwane from the Eastern Cape health department.
“You can ingest it, but it is also a by-product of some other chemicals. We are waiting for those results,” Matiwane said.
He said the victims’ blood alcohol levels were not fatal, nor were their carbon monoxide levels.
“We are looking for other things like by-products of methanol,” he added, explaining that the gastric contents of the deceased were being analysed to get a better picture of what happened.
Methanol, also known as wood alcohol, can cause a number of debilitating symptoms if ingested, including headache, drowsiness, nausea, vomiting and epigastric pain. It can also cause blindness.
Twenty-one young people – the youngest was 13 – died at the tavern in Scenery Park or at hospital or a nearby clinic in the early hours of 26 June after a “pens down” party at the popular drinking spot to celebrate the end of the exams.
They are: Esinako Sanarhana, Sikelela Tshemese, Sinothando Mgangala, Thembinkosi Silwane, Azizipho Zilindile, Bhongolethu Ncandana, Aluncedo Monelo, Mbulelo Rangile, Nathi Ngqoza, Inathi Nkani, Asamkele Thukuthe, Lithemba Velaphi, Sandanathi Mahlakahlaka, Simamkele Sobetwa, Kungentando Nzima, Lilitha Methuko, Lungile Bekiso, Ovayo Mateyise, Inamandla Wexu, Simele Bolsiki and Oyena Ngoloyi.
Read in Daily Maverick: “‘Kuzofiwa’ – a party invitation that foreshadowed deaths of 21 at Eastern Cape nightspot”
On Tuesday morning a delegation of senior government officials, including Police Minister Bheki Cele, Eastern Cape premier Oscar Mabuyane and his health MEC, Nomakhosazana Meth, gathered at the Cambridge Police Station in East London to brief the families of the deceased.
Xolile Malangeni, the father of one of the victims, said they were not happy with the briefing: “They are just playing with families, we are still grieving… They must not take us [for fools] as we don’t know and if you don’t have money in South Africa you are nothing.”
Another parent, Mnikeli December, said the government was playing with them: “There is no report on what they told us today, there is nothing that we can say we received today. Instead they are telling us stories. What we want to know is exactly what killed our children.”
The manager of the tavern, Siyakhangela Ndevu (52), was arrested last week to appear in court on charges of contravening the Liquor Act. Two of his employees were given the chance to pay a fine and avoid court.
The liquor licence for the tavern is in the name of Ndevu’s wife, Vuyokazi.
The tavern was closed down shortly after the incident.
Mabuyane said he realised the families needed more emotional support because their pain ran very deep and some had lost their only children.
He also said there was a backlog at the laboratories.
Cele said the police remained committed to helping the families understand what had happened to their relatives.
“We are not ruling out any form of accountability,” he said.
The police have opened an inquest docket into the deaths. The death certificates still read “Under Investigation”.
In 2016, the government, in a policy document dealing with dangerous homemade alcohol, highlighted the dangers of homemade brews spiked with methanol.
“The production of illegal liquor is a multifaceted problem and is also influenced by efforts to evade excise duties on alcoholic beverages. In such cases, licensed or unlicensed manufacturers use cheaper spirits to produce illegal variants of other categories of spirits and the use of industrial alcohol (methanol or ethanol) to produce cheap spirits. The easy availability of cheap industrial alcohol, and the lacuna that currently exists in the context of ales, appears to further facilitate the illicit market,” the document stated.
In the past two years there have been a number of cases in the Eastern Cape in which people died of methanol poisoning caused by illegally home-brewed alcohol.
In June 2020, seven people from Masiphumelele in the Western Cape died of methanol poisoning after drinking homemade alcohol. A number of lethal and non-lethal methanol poisonings following the consumption of home-brewed alcohol have also been recorded in the Eastern Cape. DM/MC