Dr Barney Tiego Selebano testifying at the Life Esidimeni arbitration on Tuesday after his urgent application to set aside a subpoena ordering him to testify was set aside by the South Gauteng High Court

Johannesburg - Suspended Gauteng Health head of the department Tiego Selebano on Tuesday, denied reading a letter from psychiatric heads warning the department about the consequences of moving patients from Life Esidimeni to non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

The letter cautioned about the decision to transfer patients to NGOs and indicated that the transfer would lead to "devastating consequences".

Advocate Adila Hassim for section 27, asked Selebano why he did not read the letter.

He replied: "This letter was specifically sent to the [Member of the Executive Council] MEC".

Hassim responded asking, "It was sent to [former Gauteng director of mental health] Dr [Makgabo] Manamela, then it was copied to you. Does it mean when government officials are copied on the letter it has no impact?" 

Selebalo retorted: "Why are you generalising saying government officials?"

Head of the Life Esidimeni arbitration hearings retired Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke interjected and asked how is it possible that such a momentous thing insignificant for him to remember.

Answering defensively, Selebano said: "I didn't say it was insignificant. I don't recall reading this letter."

Selebano retaliated and asked Moseneke how can he ask him why he does not remember. 

"Unless you are suggesting that I am not telling the truth?" Selebano asked.

Moseneke responded saying: "No, perhaps the suggestion is (that) you ignored the contents of the letter."

Selebano said he would not have done that.

The South African Society of Psychiatrist and South African Depression and Anxiety Group wrote a letter to the department of health but were ignored.

During her testimony, Manamela admitted to having read the letter but said she did not respond.

"My superiors also received the letter. They should have responded, it was not within my capabilities," Manamela said at that time.

Manemela was referring to Selebano and former MEC of Gauteng Health Qedani Mahlangu.

On Tuesday, Selebano told Moseneke that he would have probably have halted the process of terminating the Life Esidimeni if he had read the letter.

Moseneke took Selebano on some of the warnings which were given by clinicians who indicated that moving patients would not save costs.

"Did you apply your mind to that," Moseneke asked.

Selebano responded: "You are pulling me back to 2015. There were so many things I would have done back then."

Selebano said what happened was painful and it's not something that is easy to dismiss.

Earlier, Selebano tried a last minute attempt to avoid difficult questions and his lawyer Owen Cook submitted to the arbitration that evidence leaders should not question his client. Instead, Cook suggested that the state should question Selebano since they were the ones who have subpoenaed him.

At least 143 patients died, largely due to starvation and severe neglect at ill-equipped and often unlicensed NGOs, while a further 59 are still unaccounted for.

Selebano is expected to continue with his testimony on Wednesday.