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A view of the coffins during a funeral service held in Scenery Park, East London, South Africa, on July 6.The Associated Press

As mourners grieved at a mass funeral for 21 teenagers who died during an illegal drinking session at a South African tavern, President Cyril Ramaphosa called for tougher action to tackle one of the world’s worst rates of heavy alcohol consumption.

While the exact cause of the deaths last month has not been announced, the disaster has cast a harsh spotlight on the chronic problem of binge and underage drinking in Africa’s most industrialized country.

“We are losing our future generations to the scourge of underage drinking,” Mr. Ramaphosa told a nationally televised funeral in the city of East London on Wednesday.

“South Africa has one of the highest rates of problem drinkers in the world. We must bring this to an end. We need to become a sober people. This is a national crisis.”

The 21 deaths have shocked South Africa and galvanized a national debate over the weak regulation of thousands of taverns in poor communities. Of those who died, almost all were below the legal drinking age of 18, and one was just 13 years old. Yet all had been allowed to enter the tavern and order drinks illegally – a common occurrence there, local media said.

Investigators suspect that the deaths might have been caused by a gas leak in the poorly ventilated tavern, possibly from a heating device, according to one South African media report. Authorities have now closed the tavern as police continue their investigation.

In two similar tragedies in South Africa over the past two decades, a total of 21 children died in taverns or nightclubs that were illegally selling alcohol to underage people.

During the funeral this week, Mr. Ramaphosa denounced liquor merchants who use “aggressive marketing” to target children and boost their profits.

“They lure young people with promises of cheap or free alcohol,” he said. “They produce flyers and adverts featuring young people drinking to make it look cool and acceptable.”

The funeral was held in a tent in Scenery Park, a township in East London, with more than 1,000 family and community members singing hymns and mourning, many weeping. The funeral included 19 coffins, empty because of the continuing police investigation and future burial plans. Two other burials had been privately held earlier.

Researchers have cited the deaths as an example of the need for stronger regulation in the South African alcohol industry, including higher minimum prices and tougher restrictions on marketing.

“This is a reflection of our failure as a society to effectively regulate the sale and use of alcohol in South Africa,” says a tweet by Charles Parry, one of the country’s top researchers on alcohol issues.

While only about half of South Africans drink alcohol, those who consume alcohol tend to drink heavily. According to researchers, the daily consumption of alcohol per drinker in the country is the sixth-highest in the world. A survey of boys from Grade 8 to Grade 11 found that 30 per cent had engaged in binge drinking in the past month.

Much of this is the historical legacy of apartheid. Thousands of unlicensed bars and taverns, known as shebeens, were allowed to flourish under white-minority rule in townships where Black people were forced to live. On wine farms, workers were often paid in alcohol.

The poor regulation of late-night township taverns has continued in contemporary South Africa. A 2014 study published in the South African Medical Journal (SAMJ) found that the direct and indirect economic damage caused by alcohol in the country is about 10 per cent to 12 per cent of GDP – much higher than in most countries.

Alcohol is also a leading cause of traffic accidents in South Africa, where the road traffic death rate is twice as high as the global average. A report by the World Health Organization in 2018 found that 40 per cent of South Africa’s road deaths are among pedestrians, and more than half of them had an elevated alcohol level in their blood when they died. As a result, South African wine and beer bottles often carry a warning message: “Don’t drink and walk on the road, you may be killed.”

The damage caused by alcohol was starkly revealed during the COVID-19 pandemic, when South Africa temporarily banned alcohol sales, causing a dramatic decline in trauma admissions to the country’s hospitals, where emergency wards are normally filled with victims of traffic accidents, gunshots and stabbings.

A 2021 study, published in the SAMJ, estimated that the alcohol ban – accompanied by a nightly curfew – had prevented about 42 unnatural deaths a day, a 26-per-cent reduction.

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