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The inquest into the cause of death of 21 young people at Enyobeni Tavern in Scenery Park in East London was postponed in the East London regional court on Thursday. The matter has been remanded to 11 September 2023 for the state to provide the contents of the docket to the legal representatives of the parties. 

The inquest has also been moved and is expected to formally commence in Mdantsane regional court, due to the shortage of court spaces in East London.

The aim of the formal inquest, according to the regional spokesperson of the National Prosecuting Authority, Luxolo Tyali, is to establish if anyone can be held criminally liable, by commission or omission, for the deaths. The 21 teenagers, of whom the youngest was 13, died at the infamous tavern as they celebrated the end of the June school examinations last year.

“At this moment, it is unclear what caused the incident and hence the state declined to prosecute. The matter is referred for formal inquest, and more than 30 witnesses, including experts, eyewitnesses, and the owners of Enyobeni Tavern, are expected to give evidence,” said Tyali. An inquest is not accusatorial as in a criminal trial, he added; it is an inquisitorial tribunal. There are no accused people.

Khululekile Ncandana, whose son Bongo died in the tavern, said they want someone to answer for the death of their children. “We are happy that there is an inquest, hoping it will determine the actual cause of deaths of our children. It is long overdue, as it has been over a year. Someone must be held accountable and they must take the responsibility for what happened” he said.

Ncandana said the families have not received the copies of the results of toxicology tests conducted on their children’s bodies, and what they have learned has only been by word of mouth. “It has been more than a year since the death of our children, but we have no copies that show what exactly killed our children” said Ncandana.

On 26 June 2022, bodies of the victims, some as young as 13, were scattered on the floor and tables of the tavern. File photo by Mandla Mnyakama

The parents were told, as part of the post-mortem report, that the cause of death was suffocation, a verdict they are dissatisfied with. This was despite a public announcement of a preliminary report by the provincial health department that methanol‚ a toxic alcohol found in industrial solvents‚ fuels‚ fertilizers and many other products‚ was found in the blood of all 21 children. The results of the full toxicology report have not been made public.

“We have heard witnesses testify and seen the CCTV footage of that night – clearly suffocation is not the cause. Whoever discharged pepper stray inside the establishment knowing very well it is overcrowded had an intention of killing our children. We hope the inquest will reveal that,” he said.

Another parent said, while waiting for hours in court for electricity to return: “ We are sitting here patiently because we want answers, we are not happy with how the matter has been handled by authorities but we are hopeful that we are closer to the truth.” Scenery Park residents said that they had complained about the activities taking place at the tavern well before the deaths of the teenagers.

The legal representative of the 21 families, Buchule Fulanisi, said it was necessary for the inquest to be adjourned so as to give everyone an opportunity to prepare. “The issue is that no documents have been provided to us; neither was the inquest docket provided to the Ndevus [the owners of Enyobeni Tavern] and their legal representative.” Fulanisi said they need to see the list of witnesses to take the stand, and the copy of the inquest docket with witness statements.

Case against tavern owner

Meanwhile, the case against the two Enyobeni Tavern owners, Siyakhangela and Vuyokazi Ndevu, for selling or supplying, and permitting employees and agents to supply, intoxicating liquor to persons under the age of 18 years, will be back in court on 24-25 October for the defence to make their case. They have pleaded not guilty to both charges. The Ndevus were not charged for the murder of the twelve girls and nine boys.

In their last appearance, CCTV footage recorded after 11pm on the tragic night was screened in court, showing them among and conversing with patrons queueing to buy alcohol amid an electricity blackout.

Demolition of Enyobeni Tavern

The Ndevus have since had their license revoked and have been served with papers from the Buffalo City Metro, for the demolition of their Scenery Park premises. The metro said the tavern structure is illegal. “It was found that there was no building plan approved and therefore the building was constructed illegally in contravention of the National Building Regulations and Building Standards Act 103 of 1977.

“It was further found that the ERF is zoned in terms of the BCM land use scheme as residential zone 3A (single residential),” the metro’s spokesperson, Samkelo Ngwenya said. “This is a due legal process which expects the transgressors to comply and cease to operate and demolish the structure.”

The Eastern Cape liquor board said they had given a license for a previously erected structure and that after the renovations, the couple had been trading alcohol illegally.