File – Former deputy director of clinical services in Gauteng, Dr Richard Lebethe. 14.03.11. File photo: Motshwari Mofokeng/African News Agency (ANA)
File – Former deputy director of clinical services in Gauteng, Dr Richard Lebethe. 14.03.11. File photo: Motshwari Mofokeng/African News Agency (ANA)

Former health official concedes that concerns were ignored

By Zintle Mahlati Time of article published Sep 9, 2021

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The former deputy director of clinical services in Gauteng, Dr Richard Lebethe, has conceded that concerns about moving psychiatric patients from Life Esidimeni were ignored by higher officials.

Lebethe was testifying at the Life Esidimeni inquest. The inquest is being heard virtually by the High Court in Pretoria.

He was questioned on his role in the Department of Health when the department took the decision to remove psychiatric patients from Life Esidimeni to various NGO facilities.

A total of 144 patients died months after they were moved.

The inquest is attempting to probe who should be held liable for the deaths.

Lebethe said he first heard about the Health Department project, to centralise mental health, in 2014. He said he hardly attended meetings linked to the project as he had other duties to attend to.

He explained his visit to an NGO, Precious Angels, which had housed psychiatric patients. The facility had been badly run and patients were found to be too frail and were not taken care of.

He visited the facility with former health MEC Qedani Mahlangu.

A decision was taken to quickly move patients from Precious Angels to state-run hospitals.

Lebethe had been questioned on whether he knew of concerns raised by Department of Health officials.

The concerns included that some mental care users were not ready to be transferred to hospitals and that some NGOs were unprepared to accommodate patients.

Family members of the patients were also unhappy about the move, the inquest heard, but they were convinced it would work.

He conceded that these concerns were ignored by Health Department officials.

Advocate Harry van Bergen, representing Life Esidimeni, asked Lebethe whether he agreed that psychiatric patients were better looked after at Life Esidimeni because of the staff and round-the-clock medical care. Lebethe agreed that NGOs would not be as well equipped as Life Esidimeni.

Lebethe also detailed that when he arrived at Precious Angels to inspect the NGO, where about eight people had died, they found the NGO was not spacious, there was no food and patients appeared frail.

The former managing director of the Life Esidimeni Group, Morgan Mkhatshwa, had testified that the group had requested to inspect NGOs prior to the move, but those pleas were ignored.

He will continue testifying on Friday.

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