“The place was clean. They had professional staff; there was enough medication and food. The washing and toothbrushes were labelled.”
The standard at the unlicensed NGO “was satisfactory”, the chairperson of the review board told the Life Esidimeni arbitration hearings in Parktown.
But on Friday, retired Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke would have none of it. “Can you see all the deaths recorded at Takalani?” he asked her, ordering Masondo to read out the list of dates on which mentally ill patients had died before her visit. “Can you see that at the time when you were visiting there, how many people died? These are human beings, can’t you see that?
“How was it possible that you found Takalani clean, caring and orderly? What made all these patients die if the condition was satisfactory, if it was well-managed and had enough food?
“What killed so many people? You have four or five qualifications related to mental health care, why do you think those patients died?”
Masondo, pursing her lips tightly, responded: “The space, the patients were congested. I’d say even if they had professionals, the caregivers were not well-supervised.”
Masondo, who was suspended in March, was testifying at the 15th day of the arbitration hearings in Parktown.
Her suspension, she said, had “traumatised her” as she was the only one among six colleagues suspended without pay.
When she said that she felt “crucified” like Jesus, the family members listening to her testimony heckled her.
In her hours-long testimony, she conceded she had failed to exercise her fiduciary duties because of “ignorance”.
She was hired in January last year, but she and her colleagues only became aware of patient deaths at the implicated unlicensed NGOs in June.
While being cross-examined, she said she believed she had reported to her seniors: Dr Makgabo Manamela, the suspended director of the Mental Health Review Board, and former Gauteng Health MEC Qedani Mahlangu.
Justice Moseneke told her: “From January to August last year, basically your review board did very little to prevent the deaths. Why didn’t you do more earlier? You see, your job was to protect vulnerable people.
“Your abdication in this case led to many deaths. You had a statutory duty to prevent harm and that duty was not exercised.”
“Our powers were somehow infringed,” she responded, adding later that the board “regretted” what happened.
“We didn’t play any role in the transfers as we were told by Dr Manamela that everything was being taken care of, the project was well under way. During our inception, we were told not to bother as the MEC (Mahlangu) had established a team to work with and we’d be involved at a later stage.
“We were not given a chance to exercise our expertise. Our independence was compromised We were stuck in the office with our core functions From the reports we were getting, there was no cause for alarm for us.”
She believed the patient deaths, following their chaotic transfers from Life Esidimeni, were caused by people “greedy for money” who “had no conscience”.
“Do you know why the families come here every day? They’re hoping somebody will tell them what killed their loved ones,” said Justice Moseneke.
She apologised to the families for not being allowed to be involved in this project
But Justice Moseneke seemed frustrated by Masondo’s lack of responsibility. “I’m trying to get you to look in the mirror and I’m not succeeding.”
She insisted she had “thrown her weight” and had been “fighting day and night” to help the surviving patients after discovering some had perished. She revealed how she, Mahlangu and other Health Department officials had inspected several NGOs, including Precious Angels in Atteridgeville, in early September last year.
“The place was dirty. I checked the cupboards and there were no food. A pot was on the stove with a small piece of cabbage inside.
“It was 2pm, but the patients were all in bed covered with heavy blankets. In terms of mental health, the patients are not supposed to sleep during the day, they need stimulation and there was nothing like that there.”
“Why did you not insist patients who were there, in obvious mortal danger, why didn’t you say take those people must be taken away?” asked Justice Moseneke.
“That was the plan,” she said.
When asked if she had later phoned to enquire if there was food at Precious Angels, she said. “No I couldn’t. I later phoned in my spare time to check what the situation was.”