The families were last week overjoyed after retired deputy chief justice Dikgang Moseneke, in his final report after the arbitration hearings, awarded more than R250 million to 144 families in compensation.
Reacting to this, Zille took to Twitter on Monday, saying: “It is good that the families of the Life Esidimeni victims have received a measure of justice and compensation. I would like an answer to this question: What did they do, before these tragic deaths, to raise the alarm about their loved ones starving and living in profound neglect?”
Her tweet was met with a backlash, with some users saying she was insensitive and was once again embarrassing herself in public.
Zille, in a subsequent tweet, tried explaining herself, saying: “Nowhere have I blamed any victim. I have said that compensation was right and just. I am just asking totally rational questions that any half awake newspaper reader would ask, because these questions deserve answers.”
One user pointed out to Zille that many of the families had asked questions but were ignored, and that their stories also came out in the hearings led by Moseneke.
Zille replied: “Well I’m afraid they were not prominently reported in any of the reports I read.”
DA federal executive chairperson James Selfe said: “The party views Premier Zille’s tweets as unfortunate, but this was done in terms of her personal capacity. This does not transgress the party’s code of conduct.”
Section27, which represented some of the families during the hearings, expressed shock at Zille’s comments, saying that if she had done more research as a public representative and a premier, she would have seen the efforts the families had made before the relocations.
The organisation’s spokesperson Ngqabutho Mpofu said: “If Premier Zille had taken a look at that (research), she would have been able to see things were done before, and it’s unfortunate because she is an influencer on Twitter.”
It is good that the families of the Life Esidimeni victims have received a measure of justice and compensation. I would like an answer to this question: What did they do, before these tragic deaths, to raise the alarm about their loved ones starving + living in profound neglect?— Helen Zille (@helenzille) March 20, 2018
He called on Zille to take back her utterances and publicly apologise to the families, adding that the premier and her party never supported the families in their hour of need.
Welhemina Thejane, the sister of Daniel Charles Josiah, 42, who was among those who died, said Zille should apologise for thinking the families of the Esidimeni victims never did anything.
“We complained, and when the Health Department would not hear our complaints, I personally went to the newspapers to expose what was happening. Weeks later other families came forward and told their stories as well. It is wrong to suggest that we did nothing, and not only once, but many times, countless times,” Thejane said.
Approached for comment, Zille’s spokesperson Michael Mpofu referred the newspaper to a column the premier wrote following her tweet.
In the column, Zille said: “People sometimes accuse me of having an empathy deficit. They are profoundly wrong. I have enough empathy to know that hand-wringing does not cut it. Asking the right questions and taking the hard decisions, does. Taking personal responsibility does. Having a capable, competent and efficient department does.
“This means appointing the right MEC to head the department and the right professionals in the right positions, who are dedicated enough to go way beyond the call of duty, tooth-combing an entire province to find unlicensed facilities to make sure they are brought up to scratch. That is real care, not sentimentality,” she wrote.