The tragedy of under-age drinking as SA mourns Enyobeni Tavern disaster

Where were the parents? South Africa is mourning the deaths of 22 young people who were found dead in the early hours of Sunday morning – and that’s what our police minister has to offer.

Granted Bheki Cele did do some performative weeping for the cameras, it’s perhaps the first time he actually seems to have been upset about anything. He should be. We’re all crying inside. But to blame the parents is a little bit too facile, it’s certainly too soon. 

Perhaps the most important thing is that it ignores the fact that the majority of those who perished were teenagers, with one or two in their 20s. At that age, we all thought we were bullet proof. For those of us who grew up in the pre-Google and Instagram era, we give thanks everyday that there are no permanent reminders of our youthful indiscretions. 

Teenagers rebel, they kick against the restraints that their parents try to place on them – those fortunate enough to come from homes with committed and concerned parents. Far too many aren’t that lucky in a country such as ours with its predominance of child-headed households.

As for drinking, bunking out and breaking the rules, teenagers have been doing that since biblical times. All the society can do is reduce the number of places where the underaged can get in, especially those run by unscrupulous owners and havens of all manner of contraband.

It’s important for us to know exactly what led to these tragic deaths – so that we can have a better chance of preventing them from happening again. 

It’s important that we can find out who is responsible so that they can be punished before an angry community takes the law into its own hands. 

It’s important that speakeasies, pubs, clubs and taverns are regulated so that those who are allowed – by law – to frequent them can do so in relative peace, harmony and safety.

All of these issues are important, but the most important one is the role of the police. 

It is the police who should check on these places; the local cops doing their rounds. 

It is the police who should know what is going on before it happens. 

It is the police who should have intervened when the kids piled into the streets because the tavern was full.

It is the police who should put together the dockets to ensure that the guilty are brought to book.

Except the question of the police isn’t the most important, apparently.

A year ago, this country almost went over the precipice into a bloody civil war. Police intelligence didn’t see it coming. The thin blue line, captured on TV, stood by and watched as people looted in an orgy of unimaginable destruction. Forget convictions, many of the ringleaders haven’t even been arraigned on some charge or other.

On Sunday, another tragedy of unimaginable proportions played out. 

Instead of playacting as Minister of Morals, Mr Minister, the question you should be asking is where were your police?

We don’t know either.

Originally published in The Saturday Star on 4 July 2022.