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Minstrel owner's bar in the spotlight after 'mass poisoning' in Cape Town

16 January 2020 - 13:38 By Aron HYman
Paramedics treat one of the people who collapsed in Wetton on Monday.
Paramedics treat one of the people who collapsed in Wetton on Monday.
Image: City of Cape Town

A victim of the mass “poisoning” incident in the Cape Town suburb of Wetton said he and five others who ended up in hospital on Monday were given a clear, sour-tasting liquid to drink with food from a soup kitchen.

Numerous witnesses alleged the food was handed out at The Penn, a bar owned by minstrels boss Richard “Pot” Stemmet. 

But on Wednesday Stemmet told TimesLIVE what he told the police: “I can’t say because I wasn’t there. People say there were people there giving food, that’s all that I know about.

“I didn’t know what’s happening there. I also investigated. So at this point, I can’t tell you anything,” he said.

Asked what his investigation had unearthed, he said he found nothing.

Stemmet has been arrested five times on charges including assault, dealing in drugs, motor vehicle theft and possession of an unlicensed firearm with cases dating back to 1994. All the cases against him were withdrawn.

Mondi Dunga, a homeless man living on the streets in the area, said he felt drunk after having a single tot of liquid given to him with free food.

Dunga said everyone who drank the liquid, which he described as wine “with a sour taste”, soon after collapsed with convulsions.

He woke up in hospital, where doctors had pumped his stomach. “It was very strong. I think they put something in there,” said Dunga.

A witness who accompanied Dunga said the liquid was handed out when there was no food left. 

“The food was finished klaar, so another guy came and gave these guys wine. It was the same guys, the same restaurant,” he alleged.

Stemmet denied any association with a “soup kitchen” operating from a part of his building, but when pushed said, “Ja, the food was there, there’s no problem with that. What is the point of you phoning me now?” 

Asked if he knew about the liquid that was handed out, he said, “The liquid ... I don’t know about no liquids, so I can’t comment about the liquids.”

Cape Town mayoral committee member for community services and health Zahid Badroodien said four of the six people admitted to hospital were discharged by Wednesday. The remaining two were being treated in a high-care unit.

“What we’ve been able to obtain from the provincial health department, and in terms of the blood results that have come back ... there were high levels of alcohol detected and there were other toxins discovered,” he said.

Badroodien said the liquid could have been a substance such as ethanol or methanol. He said the “other toxins” were being investigated.

“Ethanol, by nature of its make-up, is alcohol. There are different kinds in the chemical grouping. It’s difficult to ascertain because there’s ethanol, methanol, and so on. I can’t say because I’m also not aware which tests have been done, and whether they were general or specific in nature, so it’s difficult to give comment on that,” said Badroodien.

He said it was likely not alcohol sold for commercial consumption, because the patients would have had to consume a lot in a very strong concentration for their blood alcohol to reach the levels found in the tests.

The area along Wetton Road where the alleged poisoning took place is a magnet for the homeless, hungry and destitute.

I saw a guy lying outside and I thought he was choking, but then he started convulsing
Sulailah Murphy

Employees at businesses along the road say that most businesses do what they can to feed people, but the abuse of drugs and alcohol worsens the problem.

Sulailah Murphy, an employee at a hardware store, described the traumatising scenes when people started falling into fits and seizures along the road.

“I saw a guy lying outside and I thought he was choking, but then he started convulsing. I assisted where I could,” she said.

“People do stop to give people food but I hope this is a wake-up call to homeless people that they mustn't just drink anything that's given to them,” she said.

She said there was a huge drug and alcohol problem in Landsdowne and Wetton and blamed a lack of law enforcement for many of the social ills. 

An employee at a nearby petrol station alleged that one of the victims was a female “alcoholic”, who got regular handouts from charitable citizens and businesses. 

A shop owner and employee from a business near to The Penn said the doors were usually open all day, but when TimesLIVE visited on Wednesday they were closed.

She said one of the victims, a female, was found convulsing on the rampart leading to the door of The Penn on Monday, shortly after 1pm.

“She practically lives in this area. She probably got something and sat there. When it happened that day, I saw her here in the morning, she was fine. That was at about 10am, but after lunchtime, she was lying there,” she said.

Amin Hendricks, owner of Landsdowne Coachworks, next to The Penn, said he saw people collapsing.

“After they ate, there was one guy who collapsed here. Someone helped him out and before I knew it paramedics were on the scene. They assumed it was poison,” said Hendricks.

“There was a lady who usually sleeps here and she was actually lying there ... and she also needed medical attention, but she passed out. When I drove past there at 1pm they were all lined up for soup,” he said.