Maverick Citizen


Portraits of lives lost: Magdalena de Lange – ‘Your brother is Number 97’

Portraits of lives lost: Magdalena de Lange – ‘Your brother is Number 97’
Left: Magdelena de Lange and her grandson Shane. Right: Dancing with her late brother Frans Dekker. (Photos: Mark Lewis)

Maverick Citizen is running a series of weekly portraits of those who died in the Life Esidimeni tragedy 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, which was once again postponed this week, adding to the families’ pain and frustration, will determine whether there is any criminal liability for the deaths of 144 mental healthcare patients who died in the South African public health system from neglect, starvation, torture and abuse. 

The inquest, being held via Zoom, is often mired in legal debate and technical mishaps. It is easy to forget that it is people who are at the heart of this horrific human tragedy.  

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

Frans Dekker worked as a motor mechanic. He liked to have fun and party. One night he was involved in a terrible motor car accident that left him brain-damaged. “He couldn’t walk or talk properly after that,” his sister Magdalena de Lange says.  

“He couldn’t even feed himself.” 

De Lange struggled to find a place to care for her brother. Eventually, in 2003, she managed to get him into Life Esidimeni in Randfontein.

“In the beginning, I would visit him often,” De Lange says. Then she moved to North West after she and her husband separated and she found a job there. “But I phoned once a week, to find out how he was doing and came to visit as often as I could.”

One day in 2015 she arrived to see Dekker. “I had bought hamburgers and marshmallows for him. But a guard wouldn’t let me in. 

“ ‘There is nobody here,’ ” he said. 

“ ‘You can’t tell me that,’ ” I shouted. “ ‘My brother lives here.’ ” 

She searched for three weeks for her brother. She was frantic because she had to return to her job and it took countless phone calls to find him.  

Eventually, she found him at Tshepong NGO. He was in a terrible condition and no one had his medical records.  

“The nurse told me he didn’t want to eat. 

“ ‘We put an apple next to his bed and he doesn’t touch it,’ ” the nurse said. 

“ ‘Don’t you know that he can’t use his hands? He can’t pick up anything. He must be fed,’ ” De Lange told her.

Two weeks later Dekker was admitted to hospital. De Lange desperately wanted to come back from North West to see him, but she had no money for transport. A doctor allowed her to speak to him on his cellphone.

Ek wil huis toe gaan [I want to go home],” Dekker said to his sister. “I love you.” 

“I love you too,” she replied.  

That was the last time they spoke. 

“I lost my whole world,” De Lange says. 

When she came back to identify her brother’s body, the nurse said, “Your brother is Number 97.”   

De Lange had no idea what she meant. It was the first time she had heard of the Life Esidimeni tragedy. Dekker was the 97th person to die. 

To this day, De Lange does not know how her brother died. They buried him without telling her and she still does not know where his grave is.  

“How could they do this to people who could not speak? Who could not say, ‘Help me’?  The people who made this decision to move patients just went on with their life. Mine fell apart. Frans died a horrible death and they just buried him.

“I just want to put a flower on his grave,” she says. DM/MC


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