by MTHULISI SIBANDA
JOHANNESBURG, (CAJ News) – THE recent death of 21 schoolchildren during an escapade in a tavern in South Africa remains shrouded in mystery.
What this catastrophe however lays bare is the rising scourge of underage drinking in the country.
The trend attests to the nation’s battle with the bottle, earning it an unenviable tag as one of the “most drunken” countries in the world.
At the end of June, marked as Youth Month locally, South Africans wake up to the worst possible horrific news for a Sunday morning.
A number of teenagers had perished and their lifeless bodies strewn about the infamous Enyobeni Tavern in the city of East London in the Eastern Cape province.
The youngest of the victims was 13 and the eldest aged 17, according to reports. The legal drinking age in South Africa is 18.
Reportedly, the deaths were after midnight, fuelling the conundrum.
As the probe into the events that led to the deaths of the teenagers proceeds, footage and images posted online of the so-called ‘pens down’ party calamitous night show revelling youngsters clutching bottles of alcohol.
The angelic-faced individuals are oblivious of the deadly ambush lurking.
The so-called pens down parties, popular among South African scholars, mark the end of school examinations but as is the case, herald the end of life.
So notorious, extravagant, and times tragic, are these bashes that some political groups and civil society organisations have advocated for their ban.
There is also proposal that the legal drinking age must be raised to 21.
The causes of the deaths at Enyobeni are mired in mystery. A stampede has been ruled out at the two-storey tavern because none of the bodies had visible injuries.
There are suspicions carbon monoxide poisoning from a generator that was operating in the tavern after a power outage in the area was the cause.
South Africa is experiencing its worst electricity crisis ever and some establishments have resorted generators to keep the lights on and business running during the debilitating load shedding spells.
Some investigators however have concluded fumes were highly unlikely to have caused the deaths.
It is not certain when toxicology results would be released but a certainty is that South Africa has a deepening problem of underage boozing.
President Cyril Ramaphosa, who attended the mass funeral of the 21 teenagers on Wednesday, conceded to the crisis.
“Even as the relevant authorities deconstruct what happened to ensure there is justice for the victims, there is a conversation we do need to have as a country. It is the problem of under-age drinking,” he said.
The tragedy in the Eastern Cape is the latest in a series of bloodbath highlighting the menace of underage alcohol consumption.
In 2000, some 13 individuals aged between 11 and 13 died in a stampede at the Throb nightclub in Chatsworth, Durban as they celebrated the end of the school term.
100 others were injured.
Former president, Nelson Mandela, opened the Chatsworth Youth Centre in 2003 in the memory of the children who died in the incident.
Clearly, lessons clearly were not learnt.
In 2015, eight women aged between 15 and 23 died in a stampede at the Osi’s Tavern in Khayelitsha, Cape Town.
“A common denominator between Enyobeni tavern, the Throb nightclub disaster and the Osi’s tavern tragedy is that these establishments were selling liquor to minors,” Ramaphosa highlighted.
He noted the proliferation of establishments openly flouting the law pointed to failings on the part of authorities to enforce regulations.
The National Youth Development Agency (NYDA) concurred.
“This is not an isolated incident where taverns allow underage drinking,” the agency stated.
“The might of the law needs to deal with these taverns and clubs that re carrying out illegal activity.”
The Association of Alcohol Responsibility and Education (or aware.org) noted local children are drinking from a young age, and South Africa had the unpleasant ranking of the sixth-largest consumer of alcohol in the world, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
“Statistics show that our young people are in fact, drinking from as young as 13 years of age – a sobering fact,” said Ingrid Louw, aware.org Chief Executive Officer.
“We have to start the conversation earlier to effectively address the problem of underage drinking,” Louw added.
Underage drinking however is a tip of the iceberg that is South Africa’s battle with alcoholism.
The increased social acceptability of young people drinking alcohol has become a grave problem in a country where the WHO has classified a majority of the drinking population as binge drinkers.
The International Society of Substance Use Professionals (ISSUP) last year reported South Africa had the highest number of alcohol consumption and highest rates of fetal alcohol syndrome in the world.
“There is an imbalance for the demand of alcohol use and the demand for treatment for alcohol use in South Africa,” it stated.
A hard lockdown imposed to curb the COVID-19 highlighted the alcohol problem.
The sale, dispensing and distribution of liquor was prohibited.
Erratic behavior included the looting of alcohol outlets.
There was a proliferation of the illegal market of alcohol and emergence of backyard brewers and toxic brews, all feeding on escalating demand.
This was despite the threat of prosecution.
Some liqour operators took government to court but to no avail.
When the ban was lifted, liquor stores battled to cope with demand amid panic buying.
Liquor outlets were targets again during the deadly unrest of July 2021 after former president, Jacob Zuma, was imprisoned for contempt of court.
To illustrate the devastating impact of alcohol, the government during the lockdown attributed the significant reduction in violent crimes such as murder, rapes as well as traffic crashes to the ban of alcohol.
Deeply shocking, statistics released by government in June, for the first quarter of the year, indicated liqour was involved in a 1 290 of the 1 300 cases of rapes reported countrywide.
During the period, liquor outlets were the third most likely places to be killed in South Africa, where at least 6 083 people were murdered during the period.
– CAJ News