Tavern victims’ parents told children ‘crushed and suffocated’, but denied access to post-mortem results
Offering excuses ranging from ‘I don’t know’ to suggesting that parents should apply for post-mortem results through the Promotion of Access to Information Act, to invoking patient-doctor privilege, to citing the privacy of families, to proclaiming legal advice, the director of communications for the Eastern Cape health department, Siyanda Manana, on Thursday did everything but provide clarity on what killed 21 youngsters at the Enyobeni Tavern in Scenery Park, East London on 27 June.
Parents and guardians of the 21 young people who died at Enyobeni Tavern in Scenery Park, East London, in June this year were told in private meetings with officials on Thursday that their children had died after being suffocated and “crushed” due to overcrowding.
The Eastern Cape Department of Health refused the bereaved families access to written post-mortem results that detailed the injuries to their children.
Those who died at the tavern were: 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.
Most of the victims were under 18 — the youngest was 13 years old. They were at the tavern to celebrate the end of school term and the start of the winter holidays.
On 27 June, a day after their lifeless bodies were carried out of the Enyobeni Tavern, a stampede was ruled out as a possible cause of death. The same with suspected carbon monoxide poisoning.
Forensic samples were gathered and sent to Cape Town to determine what caused the deaths.
In July, parents were told that preliminary toxicology results showed the presence of methanol in the deceased’s blood, which could indicate methanol poisoning. But the department said at the time it was still waiting for results on whether the levels were potentially fatal.
No mention of these test results has been made since.
Last week, the parents were asked to come to the Cambridge offices of the Department of Health on 1 September. There, they were told in private meetings that the youngsters had suffocated and/or were crushed due to overcrowding in the tavern.
But health department officials refuse to confirm this publicly, saying they have received a legal opinion advising them not to do so.
No mention of such a legal opinion was made in July when a press conference was called by Eastern Cape premier Oscar Mabuyane, Police Minister Bheki Cele and provincial health department officials. At the time, journalists were told there were preliminary indications that the victims all had levels of methanol in their blood. The department’s director of clinical governance, Litha Matiwane, said more tests were being done.
Then on Thursday, 1 September, officials had a new cause of death: crush injuries and suffocation due to overcrowding. However, they had no post-mortem reports to confirm this.
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Health department spokesperson Siyanda Manana, briefing the media outside the building as families met officials, refused to confirm the official cause of death.
“Why can’t you tell us what killed those children?” one journalist asked.
“We are guided in terms of the families. We have to be sensitive. I cannot cross that line,” he replied.
Manana confirmed that they were meeting the families, along with the police, officials from the Department of Home Affairs, the South African Council of Churches and members of the religious fraternity.
He said they were sharing the cause of death with the families, but that he could not divulge details as it was a confidential document since “there is an inquest”.
“The cause of death is contained in the documents which we have as a department… We are not mandated to disclose the [cause of death]… there are issues between a patient and a doctor… in this instance, it becomes important that you respect the rights of a person.
“We solicited a legal opinion on the matter and were advised that this is what it should be. There is nothing sinister about what we are doing.
“The document will be available… the [parents] are aware how to access the Promotion of Access to Information Act,” Manana added.
‘Painful and frustrating’
Ntombbizonke Mgangala, a relative of one of the young victims, said they were not told of any physical injuries suffered by the children, only that they were crushed and had suffocated due to overcrowding.
“When we ask what we can do to get the report, they say their rule is to only give us the cause of death. It is devastating. It is painful and frustrating. They just tell us crushed, crushed, crushed.
“They said to us that because they have involved other physicians investigating the matter, it is no longer the methanol. They said it was not a stampede. It is crushing. We don’t know what the difference is,” said Mgangala.
“I have more questions. They promised us that they are going to give us written reports, but now they say we are not allowed to get written reports. They told us we must apply for it.
“We are not going to rest until we get the right answers. Something is going on. We are not going to let it go. We are going to ask for legal assistance… take a stand. We are going to do something about it.
Thozama Sanarana, also a family member of one of the deceased, said they were very disappointed and were not expecting the news they received.
“They had ruled out stampede [as a cause of death], but now all of a sudden they are telling us that the kids were crushed and suffocated,” Sanarana said.
“We feel we are being undermined when we try to seek clarity on something… we are being told that we will hear everything in court. We were hoping that we would close this thing by today.”
Nomawethu Mboyiya’s child, Sandanathi Mahlakahlaka, was among those who died in the tavern. She was told Sandanathi died because the children were crushed.
“I told them that I am not happy with the report… they wasted our time.”
Many of the families said they did not believe what they were being told and were frustrated at not being able to see the post-mortem reports.
Meanwhile, the manager of Enyobeni Tavern, Siyakhangela Ndevu, who is married to the owner, is back in court on Friday for a pre-trial conference.
He has been charged with selling liquor to minors. DM/MC