Families of the psychiatric patients who died due to neglect, dehydration and starvation, were brought to tears after suspended Gauteng health department head, Dr Tiego Barney Selebano, gave a heartfelt apology and admitted that the department made a mistake and should have listened. Photo: Brenda Masilela / ANA

Johannesburg - Families were reduced to tears at the Life Esidimeni arbitration hearings after the suspended head of Gauteng health department head, Dr Tiego Selebano, gave a heartfelt apology for the deaths of 143 psychiatric patients.

Selebano took the stand on his last day on Friday when he was asked by retired deputy chief justice Moseneke, who is chairing the hearings, to speak from his heart to the families and others present in the alternative dispute resolution committee.

He was asked to stand up before he could address the crowd.

"I'm actually not standing, I want to kneel in-front of the families and bow my head, when I'm bowing my head is not because I fear eye-contact, I'm showing humility to the families," said Selebano as he was about to address the families.

Selebano said since his first day on the stand on Tuesday, he has come to realise that families are angry and he's not even alarmed when they call him names. 

Read more: #LifeEsidimeni: Suspended head of Gauteng health contradicts himself

"I'm saying to the families, You have every right not even to forgive us. You've got every right to look angrily at us. Your loss is not a group loss, its an individual loss. You sit at home and you don't miss a group, you miss your mom, your sister alone."

"That's why I keep saying, you can't explain this. In short, we made a mess, we made a mess." said Selebano with a deep sigh.

The mood slowly became somber, tears started flowing, some bowed their heads to hide their tears and some walked out and cried in their own space.

Selebano continued that this tragedy has made people to lose trust in public hospitals and has eroded all the good they have done.

"I have led doctors and professors of high integrity, but this tragedy has decimated that."

Selebano, who is a medical doctor, told the families that he would understand if they chose not to forgive him.

Also read: #LifeEsidimeni tragedy shameful, says premier

"This is a permanent bracelet around my neck, even at my old age the bracelet will never go away. It will always be that, the loss of lives at Life Esidimeni, those vulnerable patients demised with Barney Selebano being the HOD...Its a painful thing to carry," he said looking down.

At this point, sobs intensified, those who were holding it in also got carried away with emotions and had to be escorted outside.

Moseneke looked up to hide his emotion, but his efforts failed as he eventually took a tissue and wiped the tears.

Selebano said he will make it his quest to visit the all families and apologise relentlessly 

"I will go the families and humble my self and say mama I brought you pain....I will say, I want you to forgive me at personal level, forget about the department."

He asked Section 27, who are representing some of the relatives of the deceased, to arrange meetings with the families and be given a chance to apologise.

"If I could ask God to reverse this process, I would ask God to reverse this process, you didn't deserve this type of thing and I'm so sorry," Selebano said to the families."

After his speech, Moseneke called a pastor to pray for Selebano and the families.

At least 143 psychiatric patients died after they were moved from Life Esidimeni to unlicensed NGO's. Most deaths were due to starvation, severe neglect and hypothermia, while a further 59 people are still unaccounted for. 

Selebano conceded that he signed off on the project plan to move patients without checking whether the NGO's met the required criteria.

He also admitted that the department erred when it ignored warnings from families and psychiatrists within the department.

Former member of the executive (MEC) for Health in Gauteng, Qedani Mahlangu, who resigned in the wake of the deaths, has been widely blamed for the tragedy.

She is expected to testify late January 2018.