Johannesburg - Social Development Deputy Minister Hendrietta Bogopane-Zulu has labelled the ill-fated transfer of Gauteng psychiatric patients from Life Esidimeni to NGOs - which resulted in the death of 37 of them - as an "absolute disaster”.
She also - for the first time - revealed to a stunned audience that one of the patients was her brother.
More than 2000 psychiatric patients were moved from Life Esidimeni to NGOs in Gauteng in June after the Gauteng Health Department terminated its contract with the hospital group, saying it could no longer afford spending close to R10 000 a patient.
Bogopane-Zulu was speaking at the International Day of Persons with Disabilities held at Constitutional Hill in Joburg on Saturday.
Remembering the 37 psychiatric patients on Saturday, Bogopane-Zulu urged South Africans to hold their government accountable for their failures and how to improve care for persons with disabilities.
She said her family was also hurting like all those who lost their loved ones during the transfer of patients from Life Esidimeni.
“I have been to the funeral, (my brother) also got transferred illegally like all the families and later died, so when they count the 37 deaths, one of them is my own brother,” she said.
Bogopane-Zulu said the reality of people with mental disability was that they're treated like they did not exist and their inherent rights and dignity disregarded.
“So I can give comfort to the families not only those from Esidimeni group, but to the many families that continue to lose disabled people in institutions with different disabilities,” she said.
“As the government, we acknowledge upfront what happened in Gauteng was wrong, the intentions were good but the execution was a disaster, absolute disaster,” said Bogopane-Zulu.
“Patients' medical assessments were not done the referrals were not properly done.”
Her strong comments on the tragic death of the 37 came on the back of UN health experts also expressing shock at the flawed process of relocating the patients from a psychiatric hospital.
The remarks are likely to put pressure on Gauteng MEC for Health Qedani Mahlangu, who has repeatedly faced calls from civil society and families to step down.
The UN experts urged the South African government to put in place an inclusive plan of action with timelines, benchmarks and support for persons with disabilities, such as housing assistance, home and respite care.
The deaths of psychiatric patients are subject to an investigation by the health ombudsman.
“We are extremely concerned about this situation and the seeming lack of conclusive investigations until now,” the experts said.
“We urge the authorities to provide the results of any judicial and other independent investigation as soon as possible, and to explain what measures they have taken to prevent further casualties.”
Andrew Pietersen, a representative of the Esidimeni families, lamented that Mahlangu had not responded to the families’ memo of demands delivered to her office a month ago.
He asked for an emergency intervention by the departments of health and social development to appoint curators to each former resident of Life Esidemini to assess them and help guide decisions on what is best for their care.
South African Disability Alliance director Marina Clarke called for a commission of inquiry into the state of mental health services and the memorialising of the lives lost.