Minister of Health Aaron Motsoaledi File picture: Jacques Naude/Independent Media
Johannesburg – Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi told Parliament on Thursday that the unfolding tragedy resulting from the transfer of mentally ill patients from Life Esidimeni to unlicensed NGOs was "a moment of madness" that was not driven by a lack of funds.

Since the transfer more than 100 mentally ill patients have died from, among other conditions, neglect and a lack of food. While acknowledging the presence of three family members of the deceased, Motsoaledi said: "Needless to say, we are deeply distressed and angered by the death of mentally ill patients that were transferred from Life Esidimeni Mental Health facility in Gauteng Province".

He added: "This constitutes one of the periods of darkness in the history of our country but dare I say, it was also a moment of madness in the Provincial Health Department."

The Gauteng MEC for health, Qedani Mahlangu who resigned before the damning health ombudsman report was released, had cited the need to cut costs as the reason for the transfer – something which Motsoaledi rejected.

He said the issue of saving money was never raised "directly or indirectly" with the national health department. "That the idea behind the Gauteng Mental Health Marathon Project, as it came to be known, was to save money, adds another dimension to our disappointment and pain," lamented the health minister.

"I wish to put it on record that at no stage did it emerge, directly or indirectly, implicitly or explicitly, that the Department of Health nationally or in any province has run out of money to take care of mentally ill patients."

He said there was no reason for so many vulnerable people to perish on account of money.

"I interrogated this issue with the Premier of Gauteng Province because I wanted to understand what actually the Executive Council in the Province discussed and approved.

"He told me that the issue never featured on any agenda of the Executive Council, but that he as the premier he was told by the department of health that they have 4 000 beds in public health institutions, which they would like to use."

The premier said he was also told that there was absolutely no reason to continue contracting services of private companies when the public sector was able to provide that number of beds.

"This August House must please note that Esidimeni contract is for 2 000 patients and hence this statement meant that they could be accommodated twice," said the national health minister.

"The Premier assures me that at no time was the issue of NGOs ever raised until that fateful day in September when the MEC made an announcement of 36 deaths in the Provincial Legislature."

He said the issue of moving mental health patients in Gauteng never came to the National Health Council to be dealt with like all other major events. Motsoaledi noted that NGOs went to Life Esidimeni to pick up patients on their own and brought them to their homes without files, without diagnosis and all the necessary ingredients that would bring quality healthcare.

"These NGOs were issued invalid licences as the Health Ombud discovered later during his investigations. The licences were issued by the Director of Mental Health who is not empowered to do so. Only the HOD [Heads of department] can issue licences."

The health minister, who is a member of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) came under fire from opposition parties. The Democratic Alliance, Economic Freedom Fighters, Congress of the People, the African Christian Democratic Party and United Democratic Movement all took turns to quizz the minister on how the tragedy happened without his knowledge.

They also lambasted the ANC and accused it of being unsympathetic and uncaring towards vulnerable citizens. Saying an apology was not enough, some of the parties demanded criminal action be taken against those who sanctioned the ill-fated transfer.

Motsoaledi said: "We take the death of so many citizens in a very serious light and would therefore like justice not only to prevail but also be seen to be done."

He said the recommendations of the health ombudsman were already being implemented.