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Deep questions must be asked after tavern tragedy

Police, emergency services, parents and onlookers have filled the streets near Enyobeni Tavern in Scenery Park, where at least 22 people have been killed.
Police, emergency services, parents and onlookers have filled the streets near Enyobeni Tavern in Scenery Park, where at least 22 people have been killed.

We still do not know what exactly killed 21 mainly teenagers at the Enyobeni tavern in Scenery Park, East London, in the early hours of last Sunday morning.

Yesterday there was speculation about carbon monoxide poisoning.

Here is yet another case of incompetence writ large. Autopsy. Toxicology. Interviews. Corroboration.

Simple methods to determine cause of death.

We cannot even get that right.

The Washington Post, writing from afar, seems to know a lot more than our armies of journalists with fearsome reputations for investigatory journalism: “The working theory is that it was something that the teenagers ingested or inhaled.” (June 27).

I find our ritualised reaction to such unspeakable tragedies deeply disturbing.

It’s like somebody switches on a machine where characters like stick figures from your toy box spring to life to play predetermined roles.

ANC condemns the tragedy. Minister swoops down on the event with security and tears: “They were children!”, he informs an impromptu audience.

Locals march, demanding answers.

Families, friends and strangers assemble at the scene.

Journalists humanise the loss with soppy stories.

Online polls favour responses that say “everyone’s to blame”.

Then we forget, everyone moves on and the stick figures return to their toy boxes until the next tragedy.

Not good enough.

First up, what the hell is a 13-year-old doing in a drinking tavern in the wee hours of a Sunday morning?

Yes, let’s stop and digest that.

In any civilised society children have one or more parents or guardians whose responsibility is to care for the young child.

Where that does not happen and the guardrails of a disciplined upbringing are down, expect tragedy.

Sometimes we are too progressive for our own good.

To talk about family responsibility is to be dismissed as conservative.

Some lazy thinkers would blame the migrant labour system from the past and the more courageous among the twits, “structural racism”.

There is no agency, only victimhood.

No sense of accountability in the present; only a reflexive finger-pointing towards the past.

That is the kind of hogwash that leads to completely preventable deaths.

In an impoverished school I am helping to revitalise, the teachers sometimes notice children still playing outside at 4 or 5pm.

They then drive the children home and confront the parents.

Their response? “Oh, thanks, we forgot to pick them up.”

Don’t tell me this is a problem of social class.

I see exactly the same behaviour among the wealthy who outsource responsibility for their children to shopping malls and drug dealers in the major malls of the big cities.

The truth is that a child’s first line of defence against a world that would tear them apart is the care of adults in and around the home.

Animals do it in the wild with a fierce, instinctive protection of the young and the vulnerable in their care; not homo sapiens.

By all means, remove the liquor licence of the tavern owner and bring criminal prosecutions as necessary.

Lambaste the Eastern Cape Liquor Board for not heeding earlier warnings about children in the tavern.

Locate the criminal elements whose actions (for example, a petrol generator inside the crowded venue?) led to the release of poisonous chemicals into the air of a tightly-packed venue.

Go ahead and try to resolve this problem at the consequential end of a problem whose roots lie much further back in how we raise our children.

No parent is perfect; ask my kids.

But there are certain basic instincts that kick in regardless of race, religion or social class.

Like knowing where your child is, especially in the dark hours.

Like setting firm times for being back home.

Like having proof of who you are with when leaving home.

Like having numbers where you can be contacted. Old school? Perhaps. Potentially life-saving? Without a doubt.

And for heaven’s sake, do not make this a problem of what schools should do.

I can hear somebody saying that if only substance abuse enjoyed more attention in the life orientation curriculum, this tragedy would not have happened.

Please. Schools have enough work dealing with the traumas of dysfunctional and depressed communities.

Not a single intervention proposed so far in the Enyobeni tragedy has suggested ways in which we can rebuild family capacity and commitment to the children.

It’s all about the here and now, the drama of the present.

This was not the first case of children dying in drinking houses in SA and it will certainly not be the last.

But what we can also predict is that the failure to ask deeper questions about how we got here almost guarantees a repeat tragedy in the near future.


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