Johannesburg - Former Gauteng health member of the executive council (MEC) Qedani Mahlangu, who was blamed for the deaths of 143 mentally ill patients, on Thursday lost her cool and told the Life Esidimeni arbitration hearings that her character was being attacked.
Advocate Lila Crouse, for Legal Aid South Africa, and Mahlangu butted heads for the better part of the day to the point of Mahlangu asking to express herself in isiZulu. However, she abandoned the aid of the interpreter within five minutes.
"I am getting an impression that I am here in the arbitration about my character than anything else. If this is about my character then I should have a lawyer. I am getting uncomfortable," Mahlangu said.
"I came to the hearings willingly to assist families get closure. I find myself in a difficult situation. The questions I’m being asked are technical. No politician in South Africa who can understand them."
Retired deputy chief justice Dikgang Moseneke told Mahlangu that his work is to chair the arbitration and assured her he would step in if she was being treated unfairly.
"In an arbitration you need to answer questions. You will be asked questions about what happened. if your character is touched on, I will intervene," he said.
His words did not do much to comfort Mahlangu, on her third day in the witness stand as she and Crouse continued in their contention.
"I see from the letter you sent to the ombudsman that you went to Dubai -- before the report came out. Were you there on holiday?" asked Crouse.
Firing back, Mahlangu said: "What is the relevance of the question?"
Crouse retorted saying: "People were dying and you go on holiday."
Moseneke intervened and told Crouse that was not relevant where the witness holidayed. Crouse said she thought it was relevant because it was Dubai.
Reminding Crouse, Moseneke said: "Yes, and Dubai is very controversial. This isn't a state capture inquiry."
Sticking to her guns, Crouse said: "We know this witness was in hospital and didn’t do her duties. We know she was campaigning and didn’t do her duties. She went on holiday and didn’t do her duties."
When pressed further to answer about warning emails and letters concerning the closure of Life Esidimeni, Mahlangu maintained that she never saw the communication and said she was in hospital or referred the matter to former head of mental health Dr Barney Selebano.
Moseneke asked Mahlangu why she did not listen to families when they complained to her.
"If I had benefit of foresight I would have done things differently. I trusted officials," Mahlangu replied.
Crouse asked Mahlangu why she did not institute disciplinary actions against officials who lied to her and gave her false information, Mahlangu said the department was still busy with the ombudsman's report.
Crouse told Mahlangu that she was more worried about her political career than the patients.
Mahlangu retorted: “May you please guide me as to how you come up with that conclusion?"
Crouse replied: "I am worried about you bringing closure to families. You know the arbitration was delayed because of you. Did you know that?"
"I didn't know that," said Mahlangu sounding uninterested.
Looking annoyed, Moseneke said: "Your attitude is a bad one and disrespectful because you made everyone wait. That's what counsel is putting to you."
Mahlangu replied saying: "It's not intentional. I thought we had dealt with this."
Moseneke reminded Mahlangu about Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi's statement when he told parliament that national and provincial health departments did not run out of money to look after mentally ill patients.
"What do you have to say?" enquired Moseneke.
Mahlangu responded saying: "I don't know what propelled him to make such a statement."
Moseneke asked her if she was implying that there was no money to look after mentally ill patients or if she was saying that they were saving money for the future.
"So do you reject or accept the minister's statement?" Moseneke asked.
Mahlangu said she does not have a comment.
When closing her cross examination, Crouse told Mahlangu that she had not shown accountability.
Mahlangu responded: “If I wasn’t accountable I would still be employed."
African News Agency/ANA