By The Associated Press

A view of the coffins during a funeral service held in Scenery Park, East London, South Africa, Wednesday, July 6, 2022. 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. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa is due to give the eulogy for the young who died. (AP Photo)

EAST LONDON, South Africa (AP) — The 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 to 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.

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 the 19 coffins 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.

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.

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 in 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?”

Local residents were skeptical about the calls by Ramaphosa and other officials for effective action to stop alcohol sales to youngsters.

“Whatever they said today, it is going to end today. Those are the promises they always make, especially our president. It is going to be the last day we see them,” Nwabisa Booi, a resident of the nearby Mdantsane township.

“Everybody here is hurt about what happened, but we are still looking for answers as to what happened to our kids,” said Booi.

Ntombizonke Mgangala, the aunt of 17-year-old Sinothando Mgangala who died in the tragedy, said the family had finally accepted her death.

“Honestly, we have been wishing that she could just walk through the door. We did not really believe it, like we were in denial,” Mgangala said.

“But seeing the coffin with her picture on it, it was painful and helped us to release her,” she said.

She said although many people blamed the parents when the deaths happened, it is now clear that many of the teenagers had attended the event without their parents’ consent.

“Other parents who were not affected were blaming us, saying we do not have control over our children. But it is now clear that these children do not listen to us,” Mgangala said.

“I am encouraged that those parents were here today. And many said that the tavern owners, who are also parents, should help by refusing to sell liquor to them,” she said.