Government leaders have wept as they've apologised to the families of 144 mental health care patients who died after being transferred from Life Esidimeni. But the final day of the arbitration on Friday saw the same callousness from the state that caused the atrocity. By GREG NICOLSON and PUSELETSO NTHATE.
“Billy Maboe’s father is Reverend Maboe,” said SECTION27’s Advocate Adila Hassim, representing the families of those who died at the arbitration on Friday, and in so doing put the victims and their families at the centre of the saga as it comes to a conclusion.
“He describes Billy as always jolly when he was at Life Esidimeni. When Reverend Maboe went to visit Billy at Bophelong and took him some food, Billy was so hungry that he licked the chip packet clean.
“Daniel Josiah was a beloved brother. He liked it when his sister Welheminah spoke to him even though he couldn’t answer her.
“Solly Mashego was a beloved brother. He carried his sister Phumzile on his back to school when she was young.
“Freddy Collitz liked sweets. He was a husband and a father.
“Masweet Kozwale was a beloved daughter and a niece. She stopped talking when she was transferred to Takalani.
“Virginia Machpelah was a beloved mother and sister. When Virginia had to be admitted to Life Esidimeni, her daughter Shaniece lived with Virginia’s sister Christine. Her death caused heartbreak to Shaniece who passed away in October 2017.”
In a heart-wrenching address, Hassim read the names of all the mental health care patients who died and who SECTION27 represents. She was responding to Advocate Tebogo Hutamo, who represents the Gauteng government, who, after multiple apologies from government and an arbitration that has sat since October, maintained that families should not be paid compensation for constitutional damages.
The government has agreed to pay R200,000 to each family for emotional shock, psychological injury and funeral expenses. The families want an additional R1.5-million in constitutional damages for the violation of their right to dignity, family life, equality, and for cruel and inhuman treatment. They want R500,000 of the requested R1.5-million to go back into the Gauteng health system to improve services.
Photo: Tebogo Hutamo, representing the Gauteng government at the Life Esidimeni arbitration, delivered his closing arguments on Friday. (Greg Nicolson)
On Friday, Hutamo disregarded the claims for constitutional damages and said that the R200,000 agreed to was sufficient. Patients were moved like cattle after the Gauteng health department ignored repeated warnings to abandon the project of moving 1,700 mental health care users from Life Esidimeni into NGOs and community care.
The 144 patients died because the NGOs were ill-equipped and under-resourced. Many died hungry, untreated and cold. Relatives fought the government against making the move, had to search for their loved ones, weren’t told when they died, and some found their loved ones’ bodies decomposed in makeshift morgues. Clinical psychologist Coralie Trotter testified that the treatment of the patients amounted to torture.
Department officials and former MEC Qedani Mahlangu treated them with contempt throughout the process and although they apologised at the arbitration, each leader was either vague or misleading over the facts.
Hutamo claimed the R200,000 should be sufficient under common law and the circumstances surrounding the deaths should be disregarded when it came to compensation. He said the relatives don’t have a valid claim because they are trying to collect compensation on behalf of those who died; the department had made steps to improve the mental health care system, and could not afford R1.5-million in compensation per family.
“It’s quite important that relationships should be restored rather than moving on to punish the government,” said Hutamo, to the shock of family members. “We should not lose sight of the objective which we seek to achieve in this process and therefore the submission (from other parties) that the government should be punished goes against the very object of these proceedings.”
Former Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke, who is leading the arbitration, said the government had presented an “incredible argument” (“incredible” in the bad way). “We’re here because there was this egregious, horrendous devastation of human life so we can’t now say look how good we were,” said Moseneke on claims that the government was improving the system.
Hassim said: “The incredible argument by the state, I’m afraid to say, undermines a lot that has been done in this arbitration thus far. It’s treating the families as if they were bystanders, (as if) they’re not claimants of rights in their own regard, they were bystanders. As we said in our submissions they were much more than that… Over many months they endured a parallel process of suffering and anxiety.
“We find it startling that the state persists and seeks to argue that the breaches of the rights of the mental health care users are not relevant. They ask you to close you eyes to it, that the families are not effected, that they’ve suffered from some trauma, but that’s it,” said Hassim.
Jabulile Hlatshwayo, mother of the deceased Sizwe Hlatswayo, said the state’s defence infuriated her as it sought to portray families as money-grabbing. She said it makes her doubt the apologies of leaders like Premier David Makhura and Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi. “What Hutamo is saying is that the deceased were suppose to die and that they didn’t violate their right to life when they were not provided with medication and food,” she said. Hlatshwayo said she has to used a walker since suffering severe trauma.
Lesego Baloyi, a sister of a survivor who has relapsed since being moved from Life Esidimeni, said the government is insensitive. “It is so sad to get such a statement from the state. This gives us the impression that their apology was just a front.” Baloyi said she could lose her job because she has been attending every day of the Life Esidimeni hearings. DM
Photo: Former Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke, who is chairing the Life Esidimeni arbitration, engaged lawyers on their closing arguments on Friday. (Greg Nicolson)
"A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason." ~ Thomas Paine