South Africa

South Africa

Life Esidimeni: Relatives question arbitration as truth and comfort remain elusive

Life Esidimeni: Relatives question arbitration as truth and comfort remain elusive

The Life Esidimeni arbitration, now in its third week, has seen relatives of the 141 patients who died relive their trauma while the truth about how and why their loved ones died remains elusive. The architects of the fatal project need to testify for the process to fulfil its aim of delivering justice. By GREG NICOLSON.

Christine Nxumalo worked with her niece, Shanice Machpelah, to find her sister and Shanice’s mother after she was moved from Life Esidimeni. Shanice and her mother were close. After Virginia Machpelah was moved, the pair were on the phone every day trying to find which NGO she’d been sent to.

I thought if I informed her about how far we’re getting with this whole arbitration process then, you know, it would give her comfort that something was being done to show that her mum’s death is not in vain, but I suppose it was a bit too much for her. She was devastated. She and her mom were very close,” said Nxumalo, who has acted as a spokesperson for the Life Esidimeni family committee during their ordeal.

Twenty-one-year-old Shanice collapsed and died on the first day of the Life Esidimeni arbitration hearings. “She wasn’t sick. She just collapsed the first day of arbitration and she died.”

The alternative resolution dispute process, now in its third week, was established by Gauteng Premier David Makhura to help relatives of the 141 psychiatric patients who died as a result of the province’s decision to move them out of Esidimeni and into NGOs and home care to find closure as well as decide on a fair amount of compensation. Two weeks into the three-week process, however, family members have not found closure.

Health Ombudsman Professor Malegapuru Makgoba recommended that the arbitration be held to avoid lengthy legal battles and to promote reconciliation. He believed such a process might help build trust between the government officials who led the fatal project and the relatives of those who died as a consequence of its implementation. But the arbitration, led by former Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke, has been defined by government officials who have not yet appeared and the failure of stakeholders involved to disclose fully what happened.

We haven’t received, in fact, what they were doing. Rather, they were protecting themselves. They haven’t offered any answers. It’s two weeks, we’re in the third week now and we are exactly where we were when we started the process and that hasn’t offered us any comfort,” said Nxumalo.

The head of the Life Esidimeni project, as well as multiple leaders of facilities where patients were sent, have appeared, but their testimonies have not yet explained how patients died in such large numbers.

This process is supposed to start the healing process but it’s not. And that’s what I’d like to say,” she said. The evidence points to three key officials who pushed the project to move the patients out of Life Esidimeni – former Gauteng health MEC Qedani Mahlangu, suspended head of department Dr Barney Selebane, and suspended director of mental health Makgabo Manamela. Not one of the three has appeared at the arbitration.

Moseneke on Monday asked Nxumalo how those implicated could be compelled to tell the truth. Everyone involved in the matter so far, including the head of the NGO Precious Angels, where Nxumalo’s sister died, has apologised, sometimes cried, without revealing what really happened. Nxumalo told Moseneke that perhaps the accused individuals need to be offered amnesty from criminal prosecutions. “I want them to be charged, I want them to tell the truth, but which is more important? It’s something that the families must answer,” she said.

Relatives of those who died began giving their testimonies on Friday. Bertha Molefe’s daughter Sophie died after she was released into home care, without any advice, assistance or sufficient medication to handle the patient’s aggression. She died when she overdosed on medication.

It has affected our whole lives. It was something which we did not expect. I don’t know why they were doing this because there are people who are working about mental health. If you are taking care of people who are mentally ill you must know that you are taking care of their lives. I am depressed as we speak and I did not have this condition. It is painful indeed in the house,” said Molefe on Monday, crying as she testified.

Last year she appeared on the TV programme Checkpoint. Even then, she didn’t receive help in dealing with her daughter. “I have a strong feeling that if she was at another institution she would still be with us because she was not a naughty child.”

Christian Ngqondwana spoke of his son Vuyo Aaron Ngqondwana, who was placed in Life Esidimeni because he had a mental condition that meant he couldn’t care for himself. Months after he was moved, Vuyo died in the Cullinan Care and Rehabilitation Centre, although he lived for years at Esidimeni.

I was very cold, I shivered, I cried like a baby,” said Ngqondwana of the moment he heard of his son’s death. “You killed him. You killed him,” he told Cullinan Care officials when he arrived. Ngqondwana is unemployed and his family went into financial ruin due to paying for his son’s funeral. An autopsy found Vuyo died of aspirational pneumonia and a large sheet of plastic, probably a plastic bag, was found in his stomach.

My heart will never be at peace with Qedani Mahlangu until she comes here and tells us why she had to do this traumatic thing to the citizens of this country,” he said. “We want Qedani Mahlangu to be repatriated from London to South Africa to testify before our honourable Justice Moseneke.”

The Life Esidimeni arbitration is in its third of a scheduled three weeks. Mahlangu is reported to be studying in London but there are moves under way to subpoena her.

Solidarity Helping Hand, which represents a number of victims’ families, said it received permission from Moseneke to contact Mahlangu to have her appear at the arbitration. The DA’s Jack Bloom said, “Former Health MEC Qedani Mahlangu can now be subpoenaed to appear before the Esidimeni arbitration hearings as it has been confirmed in a report today that she is studying at the London School of Economics and Political Science.”

Ngqondwana finished his testimony on Monday by praising Moseneke. But unless the former deputy chief justice is able to get the architects of the Life Esidimeni move to testify, and tell the truth, the process will only lead to more pain. DM

Photo: Qedani Mahlangu, Gauteng MEC for health, during the launch of a global plan to stop TB 2011 to 2010, 13 October 2010. Picture Nigel Sibanda (SAPA)

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