Concerns of another Enyobeni as Pens Down 2023 parties start this weekend

Enyobeni tavern in Scenery Park where 21 teenagers died in June 2022. Photo by Chwayita Dinginto

Concerns about under-age drinking at year-end parties are growing in East London where in June last year, 21 teenagers lost their lives for as-yet unknown reasons.

As the final examinations come to an end this week, concerns about excessive drinking of alcohol by celebrating school children are growing. The Eastern Cape’s Liquor Board (ECLB) has on numerous occasions decried ‘Pens Down’ parties that are characterised by binge drinking. Following last year’s Enyobeni tragedy where 21 young people lost their lives, the board embarked on a #NoPensDown campaign which was officially launched in many parts of the province in October this year.

The Eastern Cape Liquor Board’s CEO, Dr Nombuyiselo Makala said they have learned with “shock and grave concern” about posters that are circulating on social media platforms that market Pens Down parties after the year-end examinations. He warned liquor traders not to allow these parties nor sell alcohol to minors. “Our strong warning also goes to all liquor traders to refrain from hosting these Pens Down parties in their outlets, or where a liquor trader is found to have permitted young people to arrange the parties in their outlets, immediate action be taken against such a liquor trader. Our liquor inspectors working with SAPS will be closely monitoring liquor outlets that might be used for the Pens Down parties,” she said.

The board says it is tackling the issue of underage drinking and non-compliance of traders in the province by conducting regular and unannounced inspections. “From time to time we do conduct operations named ‘Blitz’, in conjunction with SAPS and often traders that are found non-compliant face actions as prescribed by the Eastern Cape Liquor Act,” Makala said. The board said it is taking action against liquor outlets that violate the act, and they are subjected to processes that may result in the permanent closure of an outlet. “If traders are found selling liquor to minors, the owner faces criminal charges and the outlet may permanently be closed down.”

The Department of Basic Education has urged all youth to choose to say no to Pens Down celebrations.

The police admit there have been gaps in the working relationship with the liquor board and the police. At the signing of a memorandum of understanding between the ECLB and the South Africa Police Services at Mxenge SAPS offices on Tuesday, provincial police commissioner Lieutenant General Nomthetheleli Mene said, “We are signing this MoU so we can strengthen our working relation with the board. We do admit that there has been a gap, where we lacked information in terms of which traders are registered and which ones are non-compliant. We will now have a proper database and mechanism to work together properly,“ she said.

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Mene said, it was important for the MoU to be signed as the festive season is looming. She admitted that the Enyobeni tragedy was a lesson on why they need to work closely with the liquor board. She stressed that underage drinking in the province cannot be curbed by the SAPS alone, but requires collaboration with communities and parents taking responsibility.

She echoed the sentiments of the Buffalo City Metro (BCM), which at the end of the June examinations reprimanded East London parents, saying they had failed to protect their underage children from excessive drinking during mid-year Pens Down. The statement by the metro followed the mass descent of approximately 700 teenagers on to the beachfront. Metro spokesperson, Samkelo Ngwenya said “BCM is extremely disappointed with the attitude of some parents.”

Ngwenya said that the metro’s law enforcement, traffic services, fire, disaster management and the SAPS had their hands full as hundreds of teenagers gathered. In that instance five pupils were hospitalised due to incidents related to excessive drinking and over 15 children were escorted home to ‘prevent missing persons’.

Enyobeni caught ECLB napping

Meanwhile, activist and Masimanyane Women’s Rights International executive director, Lesley-Ann Foster said collective responsibility needs to be taken and blame apportioned where necessary. Foster lambasted the liquor board saying that Enyobeni caught them napping. “They should not only focus on the issuing of shebeen and tavern licenses,” she said. “Do they conduct due diligence before issuing of these licenses? As an organisation, we have complained about the issuing of several licenses very close to schools.”

In August 2022, Scenery Park residents protested outside the East London magistrate court calling for the owner of Enyobeni to be charged with murder. File photo by Masimanyane Women’s Rights International

Foster called for meaningful impact assessments on the effects of alcohol on the communities and strongly called on parents, educators, community members and religious institutions to work with government.

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The inquest on the Enyobeni tragedy resumes on 4 December in East London.

Curbing underage drinking

Young people have highlighted the lack of proper sport fields and recreational centres in the Eastern Cape as one of the conditions leading to early drinking. Gcobisa Roux said a lack of recreational activities was failing young people. “There are no libraries or proper sport fields in many areas in the province which is the reason youth go to taverns on weekends – they have nothing better to do,” she said.

The BCM has noted the importance of youth development in interventions the metro claims it has made to prevent a repeat of Enyobeni taking place in the municipality. Spokesperson Ngwenya said, “We have been unfortunate to be the area where the tragedy occurred. There have been a number of interventions since then to try and redirect the energy of young people.  We have been working with taverns, the ECLB, doing anti-pens down campaigns,” he said.

A poorly maintained sports field in Scenery Park, East London. Photo by Chwayita Dinginto

Ngwenya said the municipality had embarked on several campaigns specifically in Scenery Park to drive awareness about the dangers of alcohol. Some facilities in Scenery Park, he said, have been developed, included fencing a sports field. He said the municipality is serious about youth development and now has youth advisory centres, where young people can access internet to look for opportunities.

“Each ward has a million rand fund, it has in some wards been utilised to sponsor soccer kits, beauty competitions. Annually, we are working with NYDA for career exposure and with National Student Aid Fund Scheme to target matriculants so they may apply for funding, ” he said.

Ngwenya said on the shortage and poverty of libraries, the municipality has for a while been funding the mandate on behalf of the Department of Sport, Art and Recreation. Recently, the metro revealed that the department has in the past four years been underfunding libraries, leading to fewer new books, dilapidated library interiors, no internet connection. The metro is now looking at redirecting its funds. He said the metro plans to recover the funds it has spent on other departments’ mandates and hopes to roll out Wi-Fi hotspots for young people to access.

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