Former Gauteng health MEC Qedani Mahlangu finally appeared on M0nday at the Life Esidimeni arbitration investigating the deaths of 143 mental health care users. Officials have implicated her as the driving force behind the project, but Mahlangu blamed her juniors. By GREG NICOLSON.
Reading a written submission to the Life Esidimeni alternative dispute resolution process in Johannesburg on Monday, Mahlangu apologised to the relatives of those who died as 1,400 patients were moved out of Life Esidimeni, but she was jeered as she blamed officials from the Gauteng department of health.
Health Ombudsman Professor Malegapuru Makgoba said Mahlangu’s fingerprints were all over the Life Esidimeni project and patients’ relatives, activists and government employees filled the arbitration venue in anticipation of Mahlangu’s appearance. It was postponed last year as the former MEC, who resigned after Makgoba’s report was released, was studying in the United Kingdom.
She blamed former Gauteng health department head Dr Barney Selebano and the former director of mental health care services, Dr Makgabo Manamela, for misleading her and Premier David Makhura on the challenges the project, termed the Gauteng Mental Health Marathon Project, was facing. Both officials were on suspension but resigned recently before they faced disciplinary hearings.
Mahlangu said she was not aware patients were dying after they were moved from Life Esidimeni to NGOs in mid-2016 and only knew of the deaths in September when she was asked a question in the Gauteng legislature. “I would never turn a blind eye on something that is going to put a patient or any person in danger, I would never do that.”
Photo: Former Gauteng Health MEC Qedani Mahlangu testified at the Life Esidimeni arbitration on Monday. (Greg Nicolson)
She said Selebano and Manamela did not inform her or Makhura as deaths occurred at NGOs that did not have the skills or resources to care for patients with chronic mental illnesses.“During the time I was totally unaware of the patients dying,” she said.
“I worked with professionals, very qualified people as far as I’m concerned and I had no doubt that they were qualified and well-suited,” Mahlangu said on the officials advising her during the process. “I had no reason to doubt their professional conduct.”
The former MEC said she acted as soon as she knew about the deaths, claiming to have contacted the health ombudsman to request he investigate and instructing officials to pay NGOs who were not registered with the department and hadn’t been getting payments while caring for patients.
Mahlangu is heavily implicated in Makgoba’s report and while officials have been reluctant to directly blame her, she has been described as the driving force behind moving patients from Life Esidimeni, despite repeated warnings of impending disaster.
She implicated the premier multiple times as she began her testimony, set to continue throughout the week. Makhura has distanced himself from the project and said he would not have approved sending patients to NGOs, but Mahlangu recalled a November 2015 meeting the premier and trade union Nehawu to discuss possible retrenchments involved in the project. She said she told Makhura that Life Esidimeni employees would be absorbed by both the department and NGOs.
During his state of the province address last year, Makhura said: “The Executive Council and I would have never approved a plan to outsource mental health, a primary responsibility of the state to care for the vulnerable in society, to NGOs.”
Mahlangu called the termination of Life Esidimeni’s contract “a collective decision”, agreed to by department leaders and the premier. She said the health department had to cut costs and Life Esidimeni’s long-term relationship with the province might have been illegal. The department had commissioned a report on the cost of Life Esidimeni and said it offered good value as it was cheaper than the cost of health care in government facilities.
“It was a decision of a collective,” she said. “It was myself, the (head of department), all of us that were in the meeting… Government decisions are not made by individuals.” She described a department that lacks the financial resources to function. “There are competing needs within the department and those needs sometimes means you rob Peter to pay Paul.”
Mahlangu also suggested Life Esidimeni was to blame. Patients arrived at NGOs looking unkempt, without proper clothing and without their patient files, she claimed. NGOs received basic patient files but not the full documents from Life Esidimeni.
The former MEC has used the argument before, but the department’s incompetence has been blamed. Under law, Life Esidimeni was required to keep the patient files and invited the department to make photocopies. That was too costly and little was done to prepare the NGOs with the information to care for patients. The NGOs also lacked professionals who could understand patient files.
The DA’s shadow health MEC Jack Bloom said on Monday said: “I think the contradictions are coming out. She has a selective memory and I think she’ll be hard-pressed to reconcile the discrepancies.” On Mahlangu’s comments on Makhura, he said:“This is very serious for the premier.”
Nomvula Nonjabe, whose relative was a patient at Life Esidimeni and survived the move, said Mahlangu should never have been allowed to harm patients. “This must stop now. It can’t continue like this. Every life matters. It does not matter if one is disabled or not.
“We need a revolution to fix the broken health care system in our country,” said TAC chairperson Sibongile Tshabalala. The organisation led a march to the Emoyeni Conference Centre on Monday. Reading a prepared submission to the premier, who did not attend the hearing on Monday, TAC’s Vuyokazi Gonyela said she’s “not sure if he’s still honourable”.
Mahlangu apologised to the families during her testimony. “To the members of the families who are here, to the families who lost their loved ones, I am deeply sorry. I know we may not bring them back but for what it is worth I am really, really sorry.”
Criminal charges have been laid against Mahlangu and other officials and NGO leaders and a SAPS leader has been requested to update the arbitration on the investigations. Mahlangu will continue to testify on Monday afternoon and return throughout the week.
Former Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke, who is chairing the arbitration, left Mahlangu with a question to consider before going to lunch. She has claimed she wasn’t responsible for the deaths, leading to the question: “Why did you resign?” DM
Photo: Nomvula Nonjabe, a relative of a patient who survived the move from Life Esidimeni, joined demonstrators outside the arbitration on Monday. (Greg Nicolson)
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