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Portraits of lives lost: Jabulile Hlatshwayo

Maverick Citizen


Portraits of lives lost: Jabulile Hlatshwayo

Jabulile Hlatshwayo & her late stepson Sizwe Hlatshwayo. (Photo: Mark Lewis)

Maverick Citizen is running a series of weekly portraits of those who died and the stories of the loved ones left behind. Harriet Perlman, Darnell Nxumalo and photographer Mark Lewis, have been interviewing families as part of an ongoing memorial and advocacy website.

The inquest into the Life Esidimeni tragedy will resume on 4 October.  It will determine whether there can be any criminal liability for the deaths of 144 mental health care patients who died in the care of the South African public health system. Patients died from neglect, starvation, torture and abuse. The inquest, being held via zoom, is often mired in legal debate and technical mishaps. 

It can be easy to forget that there are people at the heart of this horrific tragedy.  

Their lives and stories matter. The inquest is primarily about their pain, struggle for answers and ongoing fight for justice. 

‘I still don’t know how my son died’

Sizwe Hlatshwayo was epileptic and suffered very bad seizures. He was on special medication and needed 24-hour care. He could not speak or feed himself. But what Jabulile, his stepmother, remembers when she looks at this photograph, is how happy Sizwe was. How he loved to sing and dance. “When the drums started to beat, he would get up and dance.”

This photograph was taken on a cultural day at Life Esidimeni Waverley, where he lived happily for 16 years.

“Oh I loved Sizwe with all my heart,” Jabulile says. “I had cared for him since he was three years old.”

Without informing her, the government moved Sizwe to an NGO in Hammanskraal and then Anchor NGO, nearly 100km from where Jabulile lives. He was moved without his medical records or ID book. When Jabulile found him, he was dirty, cold and unhappy. 

“I said to him ‘My boy, mommy will come and take you, so that we can go and stay home.’” She didn’t have enough taxi money to take him back with her that same day.

But Jabulile couldn’t keep her promise to Sizwe. 

On 3 October she got a call from Anchor that Sizwe had passed away. She later found out that he had died three weeks before that.

“I lost a child who was kept at the mortuary for almost a month without me being informed. How are they expecting me to heal, when up to today I don’t know how my son died? I want answers. I want people, like Qedani Mahlangu, to pay for what they did.” DM/MC

To find out more about the Life Esidimeni tragedy and mental health care in South Africa visit


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