South Africa

South Africa

Life Esidimeni families: How shared, collective pain created a community

Life Esidimeni families: How shared, collective pain created a community

Retired Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke delivered a historic ruling at the Life Esidimeni Arbitration on Monday, awarding relatives of those who died R1.2-million in compensation. The arbitration was devastating and healing for relatives of those who died, but justice won’t be done until the culprits are charged. By GREG NICOLSON.

You have to sign in when you arrive at the Emoyeni Conference Centre, the home of the Life Esidimeni Arbitration since October. You receive a tag: Legal Representative, Family, Attendee, Media. The lawyers sit in the front and family members group behind them, to the right, as a unit.

On Monday morning, before Moseneke presided over the arbitration’s final day, family members greeted each other with smiles. They saved each other seats and helped an elderly woman who needed a certain spot to best hear the translator. Tissues were passed when someone started crying, while Moseneke mentioned how patients were restrained as they were transported from Life Esidimeni.

Those with family member tags were either relatives of the 144 people who died after the Gauteng government moved around 1,500 psychiatric patients out of Life Esidimeni in 2016, or relatives of those who survived. They sat through the arbitration for months hearing excruciating details about what happened.

Moseneke delivered a brilliant and tormented account that validated the arbitration and years of disputes had already told us. Defenceless psychiatric patients were tortured and died when they were sent from Life Esidimeni to NGOs. There were no valid reasons for the responsible Gauteng health department officials to move patients, except arrogance, political expediency and excuses of a bureaucratic “collective decision”.

The families suffered through that, fighting the department’s plans since 2015, searching for their loved ones after they were moved, dealing with disgusting arrogance from officials while just trying to get basic information, finding emaciated patients, searching morgues, calling for action.

“It’s more of a vindication. It means the families were not lying. They were telling the truth,” said the Life Esidimeni Family Committee’s Christine Nxumalo, who praised Moseneke’s ruling and handling of the arbitration. Her sister Virginia Machpelah died at the Precious Angels NGO. Virginia’s daughter died after the hearings started.

Moseneke was scathingly honest in his assessment of the role of the key officials involved. Former Gauteng health MEC Qedani Mahlangu, former head of department Dr Barney Selebano, and provincial mental health director Dr Makgabo Manamela knew patients would be tortured, so they should have known many could die. They misled the hearings, but Moseneke said he’d leave SAPS to fulfil its mandate and charge the three, and others involved, criminally.

He described in excruciating detail how and why patients died, how their relatives suffered, how the department of health officials failed to account and tell the arbitration exactly why the Life Esidimeni contract was cancelled and patients were moved when all their explanations were debunked.

Health Ombudsman Professor Malegapuru Makgoba interviewed some of the relatives before the arbitration, which he recommended in his report on the Life Esidimeni deaths. On Monday, he said when he interviewed relatives they were weary of another political official.

He noted the change in the relatives from when the arbitration began.

“In October it was like the families were almost like individuals, but as the process went on it was almost like they were a big family.”

Makgoba and Moseneke know that true justice, despite their hopes, will be a long road. But the arbitration was about those smiles, the tissues, the lunches relatives shared, the minibus rides relatives took home, the impromptu briefings lawyers gave families. The time Reverend Joseph Maboe, who lost his son Billy, stood and prayed for a man accused of taking life from his family.

Moseneke’s full ruling should be widely read, not just by government officials who have been warned to never again put their own arrogance, party interests or bureaucratic hierarchies before their duties, but all South Africans.

The ruling awards most families R1.2-million in compensation, tells government to honour the dead and fix the system, but Moseneke’s ruling doesn’t explain the hope of Life Esidimeni.

Every time I speak to Christine Nxumalo she’s busy updating and interacting with members of the family committee.

“It became more of a support system so we can understand each others’ pain,” said Boitumelo Nangena, whose mother Rehab died after being moved from Life Esidimeni to Takalani Home, on the family committee.

“In my family, I was on my own,” said Elizabeth Phangela. Her younger brother Christopher died at Precious Angels. Relatives of other patients helped her find a community for her cause. “We’ve become like one family now… We won’t be separated from each other.”

Professor Makgoba said, “It’s like a whole new world in terms of social cohesion in terms of the families being more trusting.”

Relatives have not only bonded with each other, many have come to at least respect officials such as Premier David Makhura and Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi, even while they’re waiting for them to reform the mental healthcare system and for officials directly involved to be criminally charged.

Moseneke has had a huge part to play. The families chose him as arbitrator, yet his commitment to justice, professionalism and sensitivity still managed to leave most unable to find the words to describe his positive impact.

The defining features of the Life Esidimeni Arbitration were love and justice, the feelings families felt for their persecuted relatives and their efforts to find justice.

Moseneke was the perfect leader, but there were others.

Lawyers such as Adila Hassim for SECTION27, Lilla Crouse for Legal Aid, and Dirk Groenewald for Solidarity refused to let officials off the hook. Long before their arguments in front of the arbitration, the South African Depression and Anxiety Group’s Cassey Chambers, SECTION27’s John Stephens and a host of others started making noise trying to prevent the massacre.

Remembering her mother, Nangema said she’s still in pain.

“It’s the end now. You just have to start mourning and just accept that this person’s not there any more.”

She expected to find closure, but she didn’t.

“It hasn’t taken away the pain. In fact, I feel worse now.”

The arbitration and the bonds it formed have lessened the anger families might feel, but they still want justice for their loved ones.

“It’s just opened my eyes to the more horrific things my mother went through. It hurts,” said Nangema.

Nomvula Nonjabe, whose sister survived the move from Life Esidimeni, described Monday as the painful recalling of events, like using a pencil to rewind a cassette tape. The arbitration has been the most difficult experience she’s ever had.

The families are now committed to seeing that all of the officials involved are criminally charged and the mental healthcare system in Gauteng is overhauled.

They’re still wary of whether the government, despite its assurances, will adhere to Moseneke’s ruling. Together, they’ve realised they have a better chance.

“I’m glad we didn’t give up as the family committee,” said Nonjabe. DM

Original painting, ‘Scream’ by Edvard Munch.

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