The then Health MEC Qedani Mahlangu tendered her resignation as the saga unfolded. Picture: ANA

Johannesburg - Sandra de Villiers, whose mentally ill brother died, on Wednesday gave testimony of harrowing conditions her brother and other patients lived under at Cullinan Care Rehabilitation Centre (CRC).

De Villers who blamed the Department of Health's top officials for the tragedy said her brother, Jaco Stols, died in October 2016 at Pretoria's Mamelodi Hospital.

''It feels like these people [health workers] got instructions from the top. No animal can even be treated like this ... there was this child at CRC, when he saw me he would hug me and call me mummy. I hope he’s alive,'' De Villiers recalled while holding back tears at the Esidimeni arbitration hearing, chaired by retired Justice Dikgang Moseneke.

De Villiers said she was never allowed to see the ward her brother was kept in at Siyabadinga, and did not know if he had a bed to sleep on. She said whenever she visited he was always hungry and was dressed in light clothing even on cold days. 

She said the slippers she always brought for her brother disappeared all the time.

''One time in September I went to see him and he was brought to me in a wheelchair. I confronted the nurse asking why my brother's health was deteriorating, and was told not to be emotional. I never saw a doctor there, I had to take him to private doctors every time he was sick,'' De Villiers said.

She testified that the people who looked after the patients seemed inexperienced and unqualified and knew nothing about the medication dispensed when she inquired.

Upon medical checkup, the private doctor told her brother was underfed and dehydrated. 

She took him back to the home and made sure the staff gave him his medication.  

De Villiers said when she returned at a later stage, she was told her brother was well and was actually walking around by himself. 

In October she received a call informing her that her brother was being taken to hospital.

''The doctor told me he was severely dehydrated and needed to be admitted. They said he was so sick he needed to be in ICU, but that there was no space for him ... I ran around the hospital asking for help for my brother," said De Villiers. 

"On October 14, I received a call from the hospital that my brother ... something inside me died too, we were very close.''

She reported her brother's death at the Cullinan Police Station. De Villiers was told that an autopsy would be performed on Jaco, but on Wednesday she said she was still to receive the pathological report.

In February, Gauteng Premier David Makhura suspended head of department Barney Selebano in the wake of recommendations by health ombudsman Malegapuru Makgoba, following the death of scores of psychiatric patients at ill-equipped facilities of various NGOs. 

The then Health MEC Qedani Mahlangu tendered her resignation as the saga unfolded. 

At the time, Makgoba’s report found that as many as 94 mentally ill patients who were transferred from Esidimeni to unlicensed care centres died of causes that included neglect and starvation. 

The death toll figure rose over time as more information was discovered by Makgoba, bringing the number of deaths to 118 – a figure he revealed while testifying before the inquiry last week. The figure rose again to 141 as acting HOD Enerst Kenoshi testified at the arbitration. Another 59 mentally ill patients are yet to be located after their chaotic transfer from Esidimeni.

The department said the reasons behind the termination of the Esidimeni contract was to cut costs and put the contract out to tender and allow other service providers to come in. 

However, the marathon project has since become costly as the department returned patients to Esidimeni in an effort to curb the crisis, resulting in the state paying more for the service than it initially did. 

The arbitration hearing continues.