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The inquest into the deaths of 21 young people at Enyobeni tavern in East London last year has again been postponed to 30 January 2024, this time to afford the state time to appoint two assessors.

At Monday’s proceedings, the state prosecutor, advocate Mathaise Kgatwe, told magistrate Mvuselelo Malindi that the two assessors will be a structural engineer and an expert to evaluate the postmortem results and the toxicology report. The prosecutor agreed with counsel in the inquiry to a postponement to 30 January in order to appoint the assessors. Also outstanding are still three post-mortem reports to be provided by the state to the attorney of the tavern owners, Precious Daniels, and that of the 21 families.

Kgatwe told the magistrate that one of the witnesses, a bouncer on the day in question will be subpoenaed to testify in the inquest and the delay will allow her time to get a legal representative. “The witness was a bouncer on the day of the incident and had conflicting statements. A statement where she said she was in possession of a pepper spray, a second statement where she said she had no pepper spray, however in her third statement she testified to have used the pepper spray she was in possession of,” Kgatwe said. Speaking on the sidelines, the prosecutor said that having read the witness statements, he realised it was crucial for her to testify in the inquest and may face charges of perjury.

Counsel said they will sit a meeting before the commencement of the trial to present all evidence to each other to avoid more delays. 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. “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 – there are no accused people. It is an inquisitorial tribunal.

In total, 35 witnesses including experts and eye witnesses are expected to take stand. According to Kgatwe, more witnesses may be called to testify.

Ntombizonke Mngangala, parent to one of the deceased teenagers, Sinovuyo, said they are not happy with the postponement. She described it as frustrating: “We are not being informed about certain things, we have been sitting here for three hours because of load shedding, no one came to explain – yet they already knew it will be postponed!” Attending the inquiry is difficult for her and having proceedings postponed again must be infuriating, but she was resolute. “Some of us are unemployed, we are depending on handouts and it is the third time since they are postponing this inquest. However, we will not allow this to upset us because all we want is justice for our children,” she said.

She insisted that the tavern manager, Siyakhangela Ndevu and his wife and owner, Vuyokazi, should be held accountable for their children’s death. “The Ndevus must answer for our children’s death; they are the ones who were hosting an event that night and should have not allowed minors into the tavern,” she said.

Trial against the tavern owners nears conclusion

On Thursday, the Ndevus appeared in the East London magistrate court. Two of the last defence witnesses who are tavern employees and were on duty the night of the incident, who paid R2,500 admission of guilt fines, told the court they were misled to pay the fine. “I was not aware of the implications that paying the fine carried. Captain Swart said to us if we pay the fine it will get us off the case,” said Xoliswa Duma.

Previously a witness and cashier on the night, Sivuyile Gqamlana said, “I did not know by paying the fee I was admitting to selling alcohol to minors; if that was the case I would have not.”

The accused have pleaded not guilty to selling or supplying intoxicating liquor to persons under the age of 18, and conniving with and permitting employees and agents to sell or deliver intoxicating liquor to underage people. The case against them has been postponed to February 21 for closing arguments.