South Africa

Life Esidimeni: Tears as former Gauteng Health head Dr Selebano asks for forgiveness

By Greg Nicolson 8 December 2017

In an emotional morning at the Life Esidimeni arbitration on Friday, Dr Tiego “Barney” Selebano made a heartfelt call for forgiveness for his role in the death of 143 mental health care users. By GREG NICOLSON.

Former Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke has allowed each witness at the arbitration to offer some final words before leaving the witness stand. After testifying for four days, Selebano asked if he could stand up to address the families at arbitration in Johannesburg.

“You have every right not even to forgive us,” he said. “Your loss is not a group loss. It’s an individual loss. You sit at home, you don’t miss a group. You miss your mother, your sister, alone.

“The anger is even palpable, you can touch it and the pain is there,” he said. “If you can’t find it in your hearts to forgive us, as a person I understand.”

Selebano, who led the Department of Health when it planned and moved around 1,300 patients from Life Esidimeni to NGOs, where many of them died in inhumane conditions, said he wants to find an opportunity to meet individual families.

If they won’t meet him, he said he will keep trying until they give him a chance to ask for forgiveness. “If I have to walk the streets and the miles around Gauteng, I want to do that.

“I’m so sorry and I’m so remorseful. The problem with remorse, you can’t measure it,” he said. A family member wailed and had to be taken out of the venue. Tissues were handed out to those who were crying, many of those in attendance. “It has been the worst nightmare of my life and I hope God will chart a way for all of us.”

Selebano said he considered himself an ethical and hard working leader and the toll the tragedy had taken on he and his family was “unbelievable”. He said he’d been hospitalised and he tells his elderly mother he is still going to work.

“This is a permanent bracelet around my neck I know that even in my old age the bracelet will never go away,” he said. “It’s a painful thing to carry. It embarrasses you. It hurts my family. It hurts my comrades.

“Sometimes intentionally or unintentionally the government can fail you and the worst part of failing you is it brings pain to the poorest of the poor, the most vulnerable, families that have nothing and that is where it should be strong and we’re weak.”

At the arbitration, lawyers and Moseneke were repeatedly frustrated by Selebano’s evasive answers and his difficulty in accepting responsibility for not decisively standing up to the deadly plan or ensuring patients were cared for after they were moved.

Selebano was the second of three key officials involved in the Life Esidimeni tragedy after suspended Gauteng mental health director Dr Makgabo Manamela testified recently. Former Health MEC Qedani Mahlangu is due to testify in January.

“Even at this late stage you still seem scared to talk about the MEC,” said Moseneke on Friday before Selebano’s personal address. “She’s not being fair,” he admitted.

“In short, we made a mess,” he said. Selebano said the Life Esidimeni project has tarnished government’s reputation and increased distrust.

Selebano left the witness stand on Friday after Reverend Joseph Maboe, whose son Billy died after he was moved from Life Esidimeni, led a prayer and acknowledged the apology. “I thank you God that he has come up to say I’m sorry.”

Selebano bent his head and held the reverend’s hand to his chest. The arbitration continues on Friday. DM

Photo: Earlier in the week suspended Gauteng health head Dr Tiego ‘Barney’ Selebano consoled a crying Bertha Molefe, whose daughter Sophie died after she was released from Life Esidimeni. Molefe has said Selebano promised her help in the past. Photo: Greg Nicolson

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