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Survivor describes South Africa nightclub disaster: ‘I can’t breathe’

South African authorities are investigating the deaths of 21 teenagers at a tavern in the coastal city of East London on June 26. (Video: Reuters)

JOHANNESBURG — Buzz about the party had been building all week. End-of-semester exams were finishing at high schools in East London, a coastal city in South Africa, and everyone was ready to cut loose. So when a local nightclub announced a birthday party for two popular DJs, the timing felt perfect to Kamvelihle Matafeni and her friends.

Dressed in her favorite skinny jeans and a white crop top, the 18-year-old arrived late Saturday night at the Enyobeni Tavern in the suburb of Scenery Park. A few days earlier, South Africa had lifted its mask mandate, marking a symbolic end to the coronavirus pandemic that has gripped this country for more than two years. Inside Enyobeni, with its sticky floors and flashing lights, the mood was raucous and joyful.

Then, in the early morning, Matafeni said she saw something lobbed through the door and into the crowd. People around her began to scream. “I can’t breathe,” she heard them yell. “I’m choking.” She pushed toward the door, struggling for air. “People were falling around me,” she said. “They were dying right in front of my eyes.”

Matafeni got out, but at least 21 teenagers died inside the club, according to police, setting off grief and confusion across the country. The police minister, Bheki Cele, broke down sobbing in front of an East London mortuary as he addressed media there Sunday morning.

“You have heard the story that they are young, but when you see them, you realize that is a disaster,” he told a local news station Sunday. “When you look at their faces, you realize that we are dealing with kids.” The youngest victim, he said, was 13.

South Africa’s official drinking age is 18 but is often not enforced.

Although the cause of the deaths remains under investigation, a spokesperson for the provincial community safety department said the working theory is that it was something the teenagers ingested or inhaled, rather than the stampede that was initially suspected. Like Matafeni, other witnesses described being choked by a substance that tasted like tear gas or pepper spray.

South Africa’s Daily Dispatch newspaper reported Sunday that bodies were discovered “lying bizarrely as if they collapsed to the floor suddenly while dancing or in the middle of a conversation.” The newspaper said its reporters had also seen bodies in chairs and lying over tables inside the venue “with no obvious signs of injury.”

The provincial spokesperson, Unathi Binqose, said that autopsies were underway Monday afternoon and that blood samples from survivors had been taken to laboratories for analysis. Reached by phone, neither local health authorities nor the police could confirm to The Washington Post when autopsy reports would be available.

Police said they have made no arrests in the case and, in a statement, “appealed for calm and patience” from the public as the investigation continued.

For teenagers like Matafeni, who have spent much of the last two years in and out of school because of pandemic lockdowns, going out to party with friends was a rare chance to “let loose and be free.”

“Everybody was talking about it — ‘pens down’ at Enyobeni,” she recalled sadly.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa offered his “deepest condolences” to those who had lost loved ones.

“This tragedy is made even more grave by its occurrence during Youth Month — a time during which we celebrate young people, advocate and advance opportunities for improved socio-economic conditions for the youth of our nation,” Ramaphosa tweeted.

Hassan reported from London.