Retired deputy chief justice Dikgang Moseneke who is chairing the Life Esidimeni arbitration hearings into the death of more than 140 mentally ill patients in Gauteng. File picture: ANA/Brenda Masilela
Retired deputy chief justice Dikgang Moseneke who is chairing the Life Esidimeni arbitration hearings into the death of more than 140 mentally ill patients in Gauteng. File picture: ANA/Brenda Masilela

Life Esidimeni: The long wait for justice continues

By Roland Mpofu Time of article published May 23, 2021

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Five years since the death of 144 mentality ill Life Esidimeni patients, the process of holding the former Gauteng health officials professionally and criminally liable has been “extraordinarily slow”. The patients were found to have died of starvation and neglect during the relocation to other healthcare facilities.

This slow pace of recourse for the families was revealed by Sasha Stevenson, the legal representative for Section 27, the Joburg-based public interest advocacy centre for access to health care.

Stevenson was speaking at a virtual launch of the memorial and advocacy website on Thursday. The portal tells the painful story of the tragedy that took place in 2016.

The event was organised by the South African Depression and Anxiety Group, Life Esidimeni bereaved families, SA Human Rights Commission and Section 27.

Stevenson said the inquest, which is supposed to start in July this year at the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria, will be a good opportunity for the families to know if those implicated officials will finally face any criminal charges.

During the alternative dispute resolution, former Constitutional Court deputy chief justice Dikgang Moseneke ordered that those implicated, such as former Gauteng Health MEC Qedani Mahlangu, Dr Tiego Selebano, former head of department and ex-mental health director Dr Makgabo Manamela, be held accountable in relation to the tragedy, and that the Gauteng provincial government should build a monument in remembrance of the deceased mental health patients.

Stevenson said throughout the Life Esidimeni process the families of the deceased patients wanted the Gauteng provincial government to take responsibility for the fiasco, hold the department’s professionals accountable, and criminally prosecute any individual who caused the tragedy.

“From the very beginning, it was clear that what our clients wanted was the need for the first layer of accountability for the state to take accountability of what happened, and there was individual address in the form of compensation and counselling services.

“And the second layer was professional accountability for those officials who were involved and acted contrary to their professional conduct. So far, the process has been extraordinarily slow. It doesn't seem there has been any finalisation of any disciplinary processes. That is problematic because it is important for people who are operating and acting as health professionals to comply with their oath of office,” Stevenson said.

“And the third layer is the criminal accountability and there is a real need and desire on the part of the families for individual criminal responsibility, if indeed, a criminal offence took place that contributed to the deaths. That is where we are going with the inquest.”

Stevenson explained that an inquest was not a criminal trial, but a way for a magistrate or a judge to determine the legal cause of death if there is anyone who will be held accountable.

She said it was an important phase that will give the families a chance to find out more about what happened and to see the links between different role players and the deaths.

“It is really an important step. It gives us and the families such a good opportunity to find out more of what happened.”

Meanwhile, Gauteng provincial government spokesperson Thabo Masebe said he was not aware of the launch.

“On the issue of the monument, both the families’ representative committee and the government agreed that a living monument must be established.

“This will take the form of a government facility that will cater for the cohort of mental healthcare users that are currently being cared for in private facilities like Life Esidimeni,” said Masebe.

He said: “The government has acted on all recommendations of the health ombud and the award given by Justice Moseneke. The matter of whether any individuals should be held accountable is being dealt with by other state institutions like the police and the NPA.”

DA health spokesperson Jack Bloom did not mince his words and bemoaned the slow pace of the process to finally bring the implicated officials to book.

“The Gauteng provincial government needs to account for its continuing lack of sensitivity to those who suffered and why there are still delays in the memorial project.

“Unfortunately, mental health patients still do not receive the highest quality of care. Hopefully, the inquest starting in July will result in criminal charges, otherwise, the perpetrators will get off scot-free. It is outrageous that the Nursing Council and the Health Professions Council have not yet dealt with the cases of Dr Makgabo Manamela and Dr Tiego Selebano.”

The Sunday Independent

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