Former MEC for health Qedani Mahlangu. Picture: Itumeleng English/African News Agency (ANA)
Former MEC for health Qedani Mahlangu. Picture: Itumeleng English/African News Agency (ANA)

Life Esidimeni inquest to start five years after tragedy claimed 144 lives

By Zelda Venter Time of article published Jul 16, 2021

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Pretoria - Details of how 144 mentally ill patients died in the Life Esidimeni tragedy is due to unfold from Monday.

The Gauteng High Court, Pretoria, is next week beginning to hear the inquest proceedings to establish whether anyone should be held criminally liable for the deaths.

Judge Mmonoa Teffo will hear the evidence of at least 30 witnesses, likely to include former Gauteng Health MEC uedani Mahlangu, as well as other officials.

The list of witnesses to be called by the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) is not yet available.

The inquest hearing will take place virtually and is due to last more than a month.

The Life Esidimeni events started to unfold in October 2015 when the Gauteng Health Department decided to terminate a long-standing contract with Life Esidimeni Health Care Centre.

This resulted in the transfer of more than 1 400 mental healthcare patients to various NGOs, some of whom were not equipped to cater for their needs.

The patients died the following year between March and December – mostly of neglect and starvation.

In September 2016, following a question posed to her in the Gauteng Provincial Legislature, Mahlangu admitted that 36 patients had died as a result of the transfer.

It then came to light that there were many more.

The families and loved ones of the patients who died are pinning their hopes on a recommendation from Judge Teffo that those involved in the tragedy should be brought to book and eventually be jailed.

While the judge is only tasked with making recommendations in this regard, it will ultimately be the decision of the prosecuting authority who to charge and with what.

The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag), Section27 representing 44 of the families, as well as the Life Esidimeni Family Committee, held a media briefing yesterday to explain the aim of the inquest.

Marion Scher of Sadag said it had been six years since the tragedy, and nobody had been brought to book yet. Meanwhile, the families are anxiously waiting to get closure.

Scher said it was not only the Life Esidimeni horror that would come under the spotlight but also the forgotten mental health system in the country, which the government was doing very little to address.

Christene Nxumalo, representative of the family committee, said the inquest was important for the families to hear exactly how their loved ones had died and to get closure.

“We want those responsible to account for what they have done and go to jail.”

She said the hearing would be very emotional and taxing for the families, but they view it as very important.

The families also want a “live memorial” to be set up by the government for the victims of the tragedy. Nxumalo said a stone memorial was not good enough.

They wanted a hospital where the mentally ill could seek help and be taken care of.

“We need to put mental health at the forefront. We want a living memorial,” she said.

Umunyana Rugege of Section27 said about 30 witnesses – including government officials at the time – were expected to give evidence.

The inquest and the judge will have to determine what the likely cause of the deaths were and who can be linked to the deaths. This is so that the NPA could decide who to prosecute.

While the Life Esidimeni Arbitration Award granted family members who received R1.2 million in damages, the next step is to hold those responsible and accountable.

An online memorial and advocacy project to remember the lives of those who were lost was launched earlier.

The website tells the stories of the horrors and hardships of the family members of the mentally ill patients who died while in the care of the public health system.

Documentary filmmaker Harriet Perlman, who recorded the stories and took pictures of the family members holding pictures of their loved ones, said what struck her during her visits to them was that they wanted answers.

“They felt that this tragedy could not simply be pushed under the carpet,” she said.

Pretoria News

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