Retired Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke is heading the arbitration hearings between the state and the families of victims in the Life Esidimeni tragedy. Picture: Nokuthula Mbatha / ANA
Johannesburg - Family members openly wept when names of Life Esidimeni victims were read out on the first day of hearings into the deaths of 100 psychiatric patients.

Reading out the names on Monday, advocate Adila Hassim said the families deserved appropriate compensation, counselling services and apologies for what they had been through.

“We’re just trying to get a sense of how the government is going to handle this entire situation,” said Boitumelo Mangena, who attended Monday’s hearing with her sister Sophie.

The sisters lost their mother to cardiac arrest after she was moved from Life Esidimeni to an NGO in Soweto, where she did not receive proper medication.

“Is it going to be better than how they’ve been handling the situation so far? Or are we going to carry on getting the same treatment that we’ve been receiving?” Mangena said.

Another family member echoed the same sentiments when she demanded the answers that would give her closure

“We just want the truth,” said Heidi Jogiqt, who also lost her mother after Life Esidimeni’s closure. “I want the truth.”

Family and council members convened in front of retired Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke seeking clarity as to what led to the deaths of loved ones after the hospital’s abrupt closure last year. The arbitration is expected to take up to three weeks and is being led by Moseneke at the Emoyeni Conference Centre in Parktown, Joburg.

Advocate Dirk Groenewald, who is acting on behalf of three families, was displeased by the witness list. He said the purpose of the arbitration was to help the families find closure.

Groenewald said there was no one from the NGOs to come and explain why or how the patients died.

“They (the families) can only get closure if they hear evidence from people who were with their loved ones during the last stages of their lives. And it seems like the government is not going to call them. Nobody knows exactly who the responsible people were at some of those NGOs and state departments. So that is a hurdle, and we trust that we will overcome that hurdle. The purpose of this arbitration is so that the families can get closure, and that can only happen if they know what happened to the deceased.”

Groenewald said the way family members had been treated must be thoroughly interrogated.

“They (families) were informed by employees of the state not to get emotional when they wanted answers regarding the deteriorating health of their loved ones,” said Groenewald.

Last year, patients of Life Esidimeni were transferred to various NGOs when the hospital closed. Families and council members allege that medical files were not transferred to patients’ new locations, making it impossible to provide appropriate medical care. Families and advocates also allege they were not notified of the transfers, and that patients suffered from neglect and poor conditions.

Representing the state, advocate Tebogo Hutamo said: “The events did not occur by design,” adding that the state would take measures to ensure that such events would not occur again.

In the emotional opening of the arbitration proceedings, lawyers acting on behalf of bereaved families took exception to the list of witnesses introduced by the State.

State lawyer Hutamo said the government would call on its witness list, which includes Health Ombudsman Professor Malegapuru Makgoba; director-general in the Premier’s Office Phindile Baleni, Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi, Premier David Makhura as well as Gauteng Health MEC Gwen Ramokgopa. The state also suggested that the questions to its witnesses should not be “combative or adversarial”.

There were, however, murmurs from the relatives of the deceased when counsel acting on behalf of the families, Adila Hassim from Section27, remarked that there was no one on the state’s list who was present at the time of the Life Esidimeni tragedy.

“At the very least we would have expected that former MEC for health Ms (Qedani) Mahlangu would be present throughout the proceedings to hear the testimonies of the families and then respond.”

Section27 is representing 55 of the families affected by the tragedy. The organisation has been representing some of those affected by the Life Esidimeni matter since 2015.

Hassim said they were concerned about who would address an apology to the families of the victims.

“In the case of the families we represent, we would be seeking a subpoena in relation to the former MEC for health in the event that she does not respond positively to an invitation to appear.”

Moseneke agreed that parties were welcome to seek to subpoena important witnesses who have not been offered voluntarily on the list by the state.

Earlier this year, Mahlangu resigned ahead of Makgoba’s report on the deaths of the psychiatric patients who were moved to unregistered facilities in various parts of Gauteng.

The findings released in February implicated Mahlangu along with her department head, Dr Tiego Selebano, and director of mental health Dr Makgabo Manamela. Selebano and Manamela were suspended following the report. 

Health-e News