South African president denounces underage alcohol sales during eulogy for 21 teens

More than a thousand grieving family and community members are attending the funeral in South Africa's East London for 21 teenagers who died in a mysterious tragedy at a nightclub nearly two weeks ago.

Cyril Ramaphosa urges police to determine exact cause of tavern deaths

Family members grieve at a memorial service on Wednesday for the teenagers who died mysteriously last month at a tavern in East London, South Africa. (Phill Magakoe/AFP/Getty Images)

The recent deaths of 21 teenagers in a nightclub tragedy is a crime and South African officials must increase steps to prevent alcohol from being illegally sold to youths, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said Wednesday.

"We do not know yet exactly what killed our children. But we do know that the law was broken that night, and probably many nights before then," Ramaphosa said in a eulogy in front of more than a thousand mourners at the funeral in East London for the young people who died at a tavern nearly two weeks ago.

"We are losing our future generation to the scourge of underage drinking," the president said, urging police to determine the exact cause of their deaths and calling on officials to stop youngsters from being permitted access to bars.

"Blame must be laid at the feet of those who are making money off the dreams and lives of the young people of South Africa by breaking the law and selling them alcohol," he said.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, centre, looks on during the memorial service in East London, South Africa, on Wednesday. (Phill Magakoe/AFP/Getty Images)

Two rows of caskets in front of Ramaphosa symbolized the young lives lost.

"Today, we shed bitter tears for the 21 young people that have died in this tragedy," Ramaphosa said. "These children should not have died. Their deaths could have been prevented, had the law been adhered to."

Mournful hymns were sung by a large choir as coffins for 19 of the victims were carried into a large tent where the service was held in East London's Scenery Park township.

Two families held private burials and the service organizers said the caskets on display were empty, in respect of the wishes of some families. The children are to be buried in various cemeteries later Wednesday and in the coming days, they said.

The tent was filled to capacity, so many mourners sat outside.

Youngest victim was 13

It's still not known what caused the deaths of the children, one as young as 13, whose bodies were found in the Enyobeni tavern. They were under the legal drinking age of 18 in South Africa, said officials. Pathologists are studying the cause of death from blood samples. A stampede has been ruled out because the victims' bodies did not show serious injuries, said police.

Empty coffins were used in Wednesday's mass memorial service for the young people who died in unclear circumstances at a tavern in East London, South Africa. (Phill Magakoe/AFP/Getty Images)

Ramaphosa delivered the eulogy as he faces several challenges, including South Africa's extended power cuts, wide-ranging allegations of corruption and questions about large amounts of cash reportedly found hidden in furniture on his own game farm.

"I have heard some say I have no business coming here to Scenery Park. Some have said I have bigger problems to fix," Ramaphosa said to the gathering. "But I ask them, what is more important in this country, and on this Earth, than the lives of our children?"