MAVERICK CITIZEN EDITORIAL
The tragic story of the Enyobeni 21 – no consequences, clarity, action or change
A year ago, at 4am, we first heard the name of an inconspicuous tavern in Scenery Park, East London: Enyobeni. Crime alerts can be deceiving. When we hear that 21 people died in the Eastern Cape, we think of road accidents. Sadly, more recently, we also think of mass shootings. But this was 2022. This time, the message simply said there was trouble at a tavern in Scenery Park. Our thoughts turned to the usual occurrences: a bar fight, drug overdose, perhaps an accident. But nothing prepared us for the next few hours on 26 June 2022.
When the first images surfaced on social media, I had to look twice. It resembled something from a horror movie. Young bodies slumped over chairs and benches and in the stairwell. Some looked as if they were taking a nap.
Initial reports indicated that the majority of the victims were teenagers. Compounding the horror, the belongings of those who had lost consciousness or were already dead were stolen by other bar patrons.
Outrage followed. Accusations were traded back and forth and people scurried to absolve themselves of blame.
Politicians got involved with promises of speedy arrests and hellfire that would descend on anybody who had even a whiff of involvement in this tragedy.
The political outrage continued at the state-organised memorial where empty, flower-bedecked coffins were displayed in a marquee. Politicians lined up to vow that there’d be consequences and accountability.
There were candlelit vigils, marches and protests.
Outrage bubbled up again when the first forensic tests showed that the children could have been poisoned by methanol – a toxic and potent alcohol often found in cheap, homebrewed beer.
Once again, the politicians promised that the culprits would be found and the dead children avenged.
The tavern owners were charged with selling liquor to minors – a crime for which even the most skilled prosecutor would fail to secure a particularly heavy sentence.
Up to this point, there was still hope that prosecutions would follow and the truth would emerge.
But then things unravelled. Matric farewells and matric exams came and went with no signs of justice or even an indication that progress was being made with the investigation into what caused the deaths of 21 mostly young people.
Parents were told that their children had suffocated and showed signs of “crush injuries”. Relatives of the deceased who prepared their loved ones for burial said they saw no signs of this.
The tavern owners were summoned to stand trial for selling liquor to minors.
Nothing ever emerged from the promised tests to determine whether the concentration of methanol found in the deceased’s blood was fatal. Queries would be shunted from health to the police to prosecuting authorities, back to the police and back again to health. Nobody wanted to take responsibility.
There’s been talk of an inquest. But after three requests from Daily Maverick for details of a date and venue, the National Prosecuting Authority is saying nothing.
President Cyril Ramaphosa, Eastern Cape Premier Oscar Mabuyane and Safety and Security Minister Bheki Cele – all of whom presented themselves at the funeral as the champions of those who died – have similarly gone quiet.
So, will there be justice? I am doubtful.
Must there be justice? Without a doubt. The parents deserve closure.
But this will quite likely turn into a David and Goliath-type battle.
Will South Africa get a new Liquor Act any time soon? Probably not. Will Ramaphosa hold the promised debate about raising the drinking age? Doubtful. Will Mabuyane continue his “good story to tell” narrative of the Eastern Cape erasing the story of Enyobeni from its pages? Probably. Will the tavern owners face more serious consequences other than a statutory slap on the wrist slap for selling alcohol to minors? It would be a welcome development but remains doubtful. Will the ruling party make sure the Liquor Amendment Bill of 2016 goes before Parliament and gets passed? Highly unlikely, in the run-up to next year’s elections.
Read in the Daily Maverick: Will this year’s Sona deliver the harm-reducing liquor legislation civil society has been waiting for?
Is there anything else we can do?
South Africans have always shown themselves to be champions of the underdog. So, we should stand up for the Enyobeni children and those who will undoubtedly come after them. Because this was not a freak accident. They were the first canaries to die in the coalmine of an increasingly unregulated liquor industry. We need a strengthened law. All the groundwork has been done. Why is Parliament not acting?
We can object to liquor licences when municipalities are considering them and they are not wanted. We can create powerful communities that will not tolerate police inaction and chaotic ineffective responses from municipalities. As Dr Imtiaz Sooliman from Gift of the Givers often says: South Africa does not belong to the politicians.
But at the same time, we have to lobby parliamentarians to pass this law.
As for the deaths of the Enyobeni 21, we can demand justice in a single, powerful voice, even though some teenagers make foolish choices and despite the fact that the municipality, law enforcement and the Liquor Board should have acted against Enyobeni Tavern months before this tragedy happened.
In the spirit of ubuntu, we should fight for justice for them as we would fight for justice for our own children.
Last year, families of the deceased launched a petition in an effort to get Ramaphosa to institute a “full independent inquiry that results in a clear accounting of what happened, why it happened, and who is responsible”. Only 1,099 people have signed it.
“The Enyobeni Tavern tragedy doesn’t just affect the families, friends and communities of the 21 young people who died in the early hours of 26 June 2022. It affects all of us because it could have happened anywhere in the country – in alcohol outlets in cities, towns and villages across all provinces, in rich or poor areas, in suburbs, townships or informal settlements,” the petition reads.
“It’s easy to point a finger at the adults responsible for running the tavern. Some people even blame the parents; the children themselves. But where does the real responsibility lie? We elect local, provincial and national governments to serve us, to ensure our health, safety and wellbeing, and to protect us from harm.
“We expect the government to put in place laws that set guidelines for what can and can’t be done and to ensure that those laws are enforced. We expect the government to identify challenges in society and address them. We expect the government to be responsive, to listen to us – the people who voted them into service,” the petition concluded.
Worryingly, as I am writing this, our colleague Hoseya Jubase reports from Scenery Park that survivors are too afraid to talk openly about what happened that night. They say they fear the tavern owners.
Goliath is winning. But we can’t let it happen.
We must demand justice for Sinako 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. DM