Life Esidimeni: Remembering those who died
After about two months of harrowing testimony, the arbitration hearings into the Life Esidimeni tragedy came to a close last week. But families are no closer to the closure they want and need.
Despite weeks of difficult and emotional testimony at the Life Esidimeni (LE) arbitration hearings, many questions still remain unanswered about the deaths of 143 mentally ill patients.
Shockingly, 59 patients are still missing – and the social security grants of some of those missing continue to be withdrawn. Others are suspected to have been buried as paupers, or under the wrong names.
Agonised families have sat, day after day in a hall at the Emoyeni Conference Centre in Parktown, Johannesburg, hearing terrible details of how their loved ones died, hoping desperately for truth and closure.
“Our loved ones are cold in strange places,” said former Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseke, who is presiding over the matter as he repeated the testimony of relative and whistle-blower Nompilo Nkosi who gave evidence last week.
Nkosi was speaking about the families’ repeated attempts to warn Gauteng Department of Health (GDoH) officials that the ill-conceived Gauteng Mental Health Marathon Project to move about 1700 patients to various non-governmental organisations (NGOs) would be fatal.
Worst recorded mental health scandal
The project – South Africa’s worst recorded mental health scandal – was driven by an “unavailable” MEC who was focused on local government elections, a mental health director who “just doesn’t get it” (to quote Moseneke), and the Head of Department (HoD) who turned to the courts in an effort to avoid testifying.
Health Ombudsman Professor Malekgapuru Makgoba’s report into the tragedy – released on 1 February 2017 – found former health MEC Qedani Mahlangu, suspended HoD Dr Tiego Selebano and suspended head of mental health Dr Makgoba Manamela’s decision to go ahead with the project was “reckless, unwise and flawed, with inadequate planning and a chaotic and rushed or hurried implementation process”.
The project took off in earnest on 30 June 2016 when mental care patients were loaded into bakkies, some with ropes around tied around their ankles like slaves or animals, and dropped off at various NGOs around Gauteng.
In most cases, patients were plucked out of LE facilities without their medication or medical records, which is why even the simple act of naming them has proven so difficult.
Many were placed in illegally licensed facilities, mostly without enough food, blankets, medication or carers. At one NGO, patients were wearing plastic bags in place of diapers.
Even in death, the former Esidimeni patients were denied dignity. In one case a patient’s body was so decomposed that fingerprints could not be taken for his death certificate.
Earlier this year, two sisters were shocked when they discovered the decomposing body of their brother Solly Mashego in a pile of rotting corpses in a rundown mortuary. They were told that they were lucky he hadn’t been given a pauper’s burial as had happened to others.
The Mashego sisters’ frantic search and painful discovery is representative of the agony most families had to go through to find their loved ones, their bodies; and the shocking conditions under which some corpses were found.
Most death certificates cite “natural causes”, but an earlier Health-e investigation found that medical officers contravened South African law by certifying questionable deaths as “natural” – when neglect and abuse were the root causes of their deaths.
Had the medical officers chosen to see the signs of neglect and abuse that pointed to the poor treatment of these patients, their bodies could have been referred to forensic pathologists who would have been able to conduct post-mortems to determine the real causes of death.
In an attempt to salvage the dignity of those who did not receive it in life, we feature the stories of 9 patients. Their stories, published with the consent of their families, are a snapshot of the horror they experienced as a direct result of the GDoH’s actions. Published alongside their profiles are the names of every single person who has passed away to affirm their existence, despite officials’ indifference.
A slideshow of some of those who perished in the Life Esidimeni tragedy: