Police Arrest Owner of South African Tavern Where 21 Teenagers Died


JOHANNESBURG — The owner and two employees of a tavern in South Africa where 21 teenagers were found dead under mysterious circumstances last month have been arrested and charged with selling alcohol to minors, the police said on Wednesday.

But the police have still not released the results of a forensic investigation into the cause of the teenagers’ sudden deaths in Scenery Park, a working class township in the city of East London, on the country’s southwestern coast. The deaths traumatized parents and friends, and outraged a nation already alarmed about unregulated underage drinking.

The teenagers, ages 14 to 18, collapsed on the floor, tables and couches in the crowded tavern in the early hours of Sunday, June 26. Survivors recalled in interviews with The New York Times that a mysterious gas filled the room, and a crush of people rushed toward the single stairway and door.

The establishment, known as the Enyobeni Tavern, is a narrow two-story building that had drawn complaints about noise and overcrowding from neighbors, including those whose homes abut the tavern.

The police said they arrested a person they described as the owner on Tuesday, but as is routine, will not name the individual until a court appearance, which is scheduled for Aug. 19.

Neighbors have told reporters that a husband and wife, Siyakhangela and Vuyokazi Ndevu, have run the tavern for several years. The Ndevus have declined recent requests for an interview with the Times.

The tavern’s liquor license was registered in 2012 in the name of Ms. Ndevu, according to the Eastern Cape Liquor Board. The liquor board opened a criminal case two days after the episode.

The police said the person they identified as the owner faces charges of selling alcohol to minors, conspiring to sell or supply minors with alcohol and other violations of the province’s liquor laws.

The two employees, whose names were also not released, had been arrested over the weekend on similar charges and were fined 2,000 rand each (about $117). If they fail to pay the fine, the two employees would be required to appear in court alongside the owner. All three were released immediately after they were arrested.

The tragedy is still shrouded in questions.

Irate community members criticized local police for taking hours to respond to emergency calls. They also said their complaints about the tavern had been ignored by the liquor board. Police and the liquor board, in turn, said they received no formal complaints from the community.

During a mass funeral on July 6, attended by the country’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa, an official from the provincial health department announced to the mourners that a stampede had been ruled out as the cause of death. Police said on Wednesday that there were no new developments in the forensic investigation.

“It’s quite disappointing,” Ludumo Salman, a soccer coach who knew two of the dead teenagers, said of the arrests. The liquor charges offer no answers to parents, who are still waiting to learn why their children died, he said.

After the mass funeral and national attention, he and the children’s parents expected the larger investigation to be fast-tracked, Mr. Salman added.

Officials said they needed time for that. “Investigation is a process and needs to be treated with extreme care and wisdom so that we can achieve the desired outcomes which all of us will be proud of,” Lieutenant General Nomthetheleli Mene, the province’s police commissioner said in a statement on Wednesday.

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