Families search for answers over 'mystery' deaths of 21 teens in South African bar

Despite demands for justice after 21 teenagers died at an overcrowded bar in South Africa, no-one has been charged in connection to the deaths. At first, parents were privately told their children had died from asphyxiation - but then came competing claims of a gas leak, of a stampede, or of poisoning from counterfeit alcohol.

Rohit Kachroo travelled to East London to investigate

Words by Mark Napier, ITV Producer/Director

On the Indian Ocean lies the South African city of East London. It’s part of the poorest province in the country.

And in one of the city’s many townships is a community that has been devastated by tragedy.

On 26th of June 2022, 21 children, from the age of 17 to just 13, were found dead in the early hours of the morning.

They had been out partying in a busy nightclub, celebrating the end of their exams and the start of the holidays.

For some, it marked the beginning of adulthood. Their best years ahead of them.

The dreadful event made headlines around the world.

But to this day, the cause of their deaths at the Enyobeni Tavern remains shrouded in mystery.

We spoke with Zingie who shared haunting accounts of the night with us.

She recalls how tightly packed it was inside the tavern. She says she was desperate to get out and found it hard to breath.

She details the panic she felt as fellow youngsters around her fell to the ground.

"We were excited to see so many people because people came from far places. Cool kids, pretty kids and we looked pretty - we looked our best that day," she said.

Zingie Sanarara told Rohit Kachroo about her memory of what happened that night. Credit: ITV News

"We tried to ask the bouncer to please let us out because we were suffocating inside, we couldn't breath.

"Kids started falling, and the bouncer saw the kids were falling, we were screaming that we were falling asking him to please open the door, asking him to please call our parents. You just watched a friend die next to you."

Journalists and family members early on the scene witnessed a grim reality unfold, as the number of young lives claimed by the tragedy reached 21.

Among them was Kungenthando Nzima. Not far off from heading to university, she dreamed of becoming a success and providing for her small family.  

The grief that enveloped her mother Nelly was only just beginning in those early days. Because more than a year on, as we prepared to travel out to investigate, Nelly and the wider community are still desperate for answers. 

"She is my child, she is my friend, she is everything about me - but now I am lonely," Nelly said.

Through tears, she added: "It's painful."

How exactly did these children die? Instead of clarity, there’s confusion.

Coffins of 21 teenagers who died in a mysterious tragedy at a nightclub are lined up during their funeral held in South Africa last July. Credit: AP

At first, parents were privately told their children had died from asphyxiation. But then came competing claims of a gas leak, of a stampede, of poisoning from counterfeit alcohol. 

Officially, none of these theories have been ruled out. The forensic and coroners’ reports remain sealed. The Eastern Cape Department of Health refused to answer our questions.

No one, it seems, will confirm in public, just how these children lost their lives.

Rumours here continue to swirl.

Despite the demands for justice, a year later, no one has been charged in connection to the deaths.

We went to the Enyobeni to try to understand exactly what happened there. What we do know is that its owners are currently on trial for the specific charge of selling liquor to children. But despite public outcry and demands for justice, a year later, no one has been charged in connection to the deaths.

And families have been left heartbroken and frustrated. They feel they have been abandoned by the legal system and that the tragedy has exposed South Africa's persisting inequalities, with marginalised communities often denied justice.

Those grieving continue to fight for answers, holding on to the hope that justice will eventually prevail. Only then, they say, will they be able to find solace and healing in the memory of their beloved children lost too soon.

Watch our full report on ITV1's On Assignment at 10:45pm on Tuesday 25 July or stream on ITVX

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know...