An online memorial has been launched in honour of the 144 mental health patients who lost their lives in the infamous 2016 Life Esidimeni relocation programme. They died from neglect and starvation in the care of the public health system.
Some officials were found to have been negligent in the handling of the relocation. And government promised a proper memorial for the people who were lost in the tragedy, but that promise is yet to be fulfilled.
At the launch of the Life Esidimeni portal and advocacy campaign on Thursday, Christine Nxumalo, a representative of the bereaved families, said having the names of their loved ones on the website called Never Forget means the world to them. And it was important to them to continue telling their story.
The new platform gives a voice to the lived experiences of mental health users and their families and shines the spotlight on the crisis of mental health care delivery in South Africa. The platform also offers help through links to helplines and counselling services which offer referrals, information and support.
Nxumalo said the online project started in 2020 and was done in partnership with the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) and Section 27. “Two years since then a lot of research, thought and focus groups have gone into it just to come up with a concept on how this was going to come together.
“And basically as a family we are very ,very happy to be part of this process because for us it is to continue telling this story. It can never be over, it could never have happened in the past and never be spoken about.
“So for us it is very very important. The website page for us as families means the world but to someone else maybe not so much. But it is important to continue to tell our stories and to remember who they were to us and never to forget how they died in this tragedy.
“I honestly don't wish what happened to us to happen to other people. Especially to people who are vulnerable... The families believe telling our story is very important and can never end really and unless action happens on how mentally ill people are treated changes our work will never end,” said Nxumalo who opened the session.
Nxumalo said the tragedy could have happened to them but the aim for this website was to change the way in which mental health is being treated in South Africa. “The numbers, the stats that we hear on a day-to-day basis are not okay. I mean one in 10 people needs treatment for mental health. It means many of us don't get treated or even diagnosed with this condition,” she said.
Nxumalo lost her sister and she was instrumental in fighting for the rights of the mentally ill patients during the marathon project. She added that a similar process will be extended to the surviving families.
Other speakers were from SADAG, the SA Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) and Section27. Sasha Stevenson for Section 27 said the inquest that is set to start on the 19th of July at the Pretoria High Court will determine if there is anyone who will be criminally liable.
Author Harriet Perlman said those who were involved have not yet been brought to book. Perlman said the website was an ongoing memorial and advocacy for the families who lost their loved ones.
She added that they will be making a film about the tragedy.
SADAG's Cassey Chambers said the website was a platform for people to report mental health issues and to encourage them to share their mental health issues.
In our Sunday Edition we will focus on government officials who were implicated and to find out what has happened to them as well as the SAHRC report which has been tabled to Parliament.