Litha Matiwane, Eastern Cape provincial deputy director for clinical services, said initial tests had ruled out alcohol and carbon monoxide poisoning as possible causes of death and officials were awaiting more conclusive results from a Cape Town lab.
The victims, aged between 13 and 17, were found slumped over tables and chairs at the Enyobeni Tavern in the seaside town of East London on June 26. Initial reports suggested a stampede could have been to blame, although officials later said they believed the victims had inhaled or ingested a toxic substance. There were no obvious signs of injury.
The deaths sparked debate across the country about underage drinking in taverns in South Africa’s black townships, plagued by poverty, high unemployment and a lack of basic services in a legacy of apartheid. The legal drinking age in South Africa is 18 years.
Yonela Dekeda, a spokeswoman for the Eastern Cape Department of Health, told the Washington Post that the initial test results were “inconclusive.”
“Further tests will be conducted to determine the exact cause of death,” she said. “We can’t say at this point where they got the methanol from, whether it was from alcohol or something else. That’s still unknown.”
Methanol is commonly found in fuels, plastics, pesticides, paints and antifreeze. It is toxic to humans and can cause a number of adverse health effects, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most methanol poisoning occurs as a result of consuming beverages contaminated with the substance or drinking products that contain it, the CDC says, adding that signs and symptoms of exposure, which can lead to death, including nausea, dilated pupils, decreased consciousness and respiratory arrest.
Methanol is sometimes bought in bulk and added to alcoholic beverages to increase profits, which means it can lead to serious disease outbreaks the methanol poisoning initiativelaunched by Oslo University Hospital and Doctors Without Borders.
A witness told the Post that those at the venue are suffering screamed “I can’t breathe” and “I’m suffocating” before falling to the ground and dying around her. Other remind being “choked” by a substance that “smelt of gas”.
Dekeda said the final results “could take weeks or months” to come in. When asked if other possible causes of death were being investigated, she said: “Not at the moment.”
South African police said so last week The 52-year-old owner of the Enyobeni tavern was arrested along with two employees, aged 33 and 34. The owner is expected to appear in court next month on charges including supplying alcohol to minors, Reuters reported.
A funeral was held for the 21 teenagers on July 6, their coffins lined up side by side, surrounded by candles and yellow and white roses.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa delivered a eulogy and shared details about her life, personality and hopes for the future.
“These are the lives we lost,” he said as he named the victims. “Our nation has lost young people who wanted to be doctors, teachers, police officers, lawyers, actors, business people and entrepreneurs.”
In his speech, Ramaphosa said the government would crack down on those who profit from underage drinking.
“The blame must be laid on those who monetize the dreams and lives of young people in South Africa by breaking the law and selling them alcohol.” he said as he urged law enforcement officials and parents to work together to stop illegal events and other activities. “Today it is someone else’s child; tomorrow it could be yours.”
Wroughton reported from Cape Town.