Health ombudsman Professor Malegapuru Makgoba at a media conference on the deaths of mentally ill patients transferred from Life Healthcare Esidimeni. Picture: Jacques Naudé

Johannesburg - At least 118 patients died either as a direct or indirect result of mentally ill patients being transferred from Life Healthcare Esidimeni to unlicensed non-governmental organisations' facilities in Gauteng, Health Ombudsman, Professor Malegapuru Makgoba, said on Monday.

"The 118 patients that have died, all died within the control period, that is from time I started my investigation from the 1 of October the previous year [2016] to 1 February, 2017," Makgoba said while testifying in arbitration hearings in Johannesburg. The hearings are being led by retired deputy chief justice Dikgang Moseneke.

Makgoba said 108 patients died as a direct result of the transfers, meaning they died of starvation or dehydration after being transferrred from Life Esidimeni to 27 unlicenced NGOs.

Most of the patients died in five of the 27 NGOs, which Makgoba has found to be poorly managed, with many having no food for patients. 

"The things I found were overcrowding in those 5 NGOs. There were poor financial resources. More importantly there was no food...," said Makgoba.

He said another 10 patients died when they were transferred from one of the 27 NGOs to another facility as the NGO tried to make room for the Esidimeni patients.

Earlier during proceedings, Moseneke heard how mentally ill patients from Life Esidimeni were transported to NGOs in bakkies and trucks to save costs.

"On 30 June 2016 mental care patients were loaded into trucks and bakkies and distributed to NGOs around Gauteng," Section 27 lawyer Adil Hassin said. Section 27 is representing 50 of the affected families.

Makgoba had investigated the deaths and in his final report recommended that an Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) process be established to determine a way forward such as mechanisms of redress and compensation. 

The report also recommended that an unconditional apology be given to the families and relatives of the deceased patients and surviving patients who had been subjected to the trauma of being moved around.

The aim of the arbitration is to understand why and what lead to the Life Esidimeni deaths.

The Gauteng Health Department had said the removal of the patients was aimed at cutting costs as they were spending R320 per patient per day as opposed to the NGOs where they would spend only R112. 

The State said during the arbitration process that Makgoba, Gauteng Premier David Makhura, Gauteng Health MEC Gwen Ramokgopa and Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi would be called as witnesses.

Hassin said the treatment patients and their families experienced would be best told by her clients, who are demanding, among others, compensation, the truth on what exactly happened to their loved ones, and an apology.

Section 27 said they would subpoena the former Health MEC Qedani Mahlangu, who resigned after the Ombud released his report, if she did not willingly attend the arbitration proceedings.

- Edited by Chantall Presence