Johannesburg - Day four of the Life Esidemeni arbitration hearings has seen an unreserved apology and a call for former Health MEC Qedani Mahlangu to answer for her decision to transfer more than 1 700 mentally ill patients into unsuitable facilities, resulting in at least 118 deaths.
This was the evidence of the national Health Department's Director-General Precious Matsoso, who continued giving testimony at the hearings aimed at giving answers and closure to the families of those who died.
Matsoso spent the better part of Thursday morning giving the detailed steps taken by the department in line with the recommendations by Health Ombudsman Professor Malegapuru Makgoba’s inquiry, made public earlier this year.
Matsoso told the arbitration, headed by retired Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke, that before the Ombudsman’s report release a ministerial task team had visited most of the NGOs that received the patients and recommended that some of them be closed down.
She also told the hearing that officials had met with the family committees.
“The purpose of the meeting was to see what steps we could take to avoid from repeating the mistakes of the past.”
The DG offered the families of the psychiatric patients affected by the erroneous transfer an unreserved apology for the failures of government. The transfers had taken place on instruction of former Gauteng Health MEC Qedani Mahlangu who had decided to terminate the provincial Health Department’s contract with Life Esidimeni and have over 1 700 mentally ill patients either sent back home or placed in irregularly licensed NGOs.
The families also heard how the provincial department had not been cooperating with the national department’s expert. Matsoso said she first became aware of the plans when she was asked to intervene by Section27 Director Mark Heywood.
“The first time we heard of the transfers was through Section27. I was never informed by the provincial department that this activity was going to take place,” said Matsoso.
Asked by Section27’s counsel Advocate Adila Hassim about whether the department had any power to intervene to stop the plans, Matsoso said the DoH had none.
“In terms of this project, in particular, we had no power. We couldn’t stop it. This is why we had to rely on outcome of the court action to see whether this was a way to go. But we didn’t want that either. We didn’t think it was a matter that could be resolved through the courts.”
While mental health services are a competence of provincial government, the Director-General also testified that it was not normal for provincial departments not to co-operate with the national department. Matsoso said she had been given the impression that everything was under control during her interactions with the provincial head of department, Dr Tiego Selebano.
Hassim asked Matsoso if the province had refused to co-operate. Matsoso said Gauteng officials had been uncooperative in that they had failed to agree to work with the mental health expert provided by the national department, and because they had not informed the national department of their decision to go ahead with the transfers.
Referring to her belief that Mahlangu – whose name is not on the witness list - should be called to answer for her actions, Matsoso said: “She has to account. She has to.”
Director-General in the office of the premier Phindile Baleni, who took that stand as the state’s fourth witness after Matsoso, said the Gauteng Health Department was now working with law enforcement to ensure any recommended legal action against people found to have behaved improperly is implemented.