Maverick Citizen

Maverick Citizen: The Life Esidimeni Inquest

Portraits of lives lost: ‘She was wearing someone else’s dress that was too big’

Portraits of lives lost: ‘She was wearing someone else’s dress that was too big’
Vaughn van Rooyen and his late sister, Cindy van Rooyen. (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 determine whether there can be any criminal liability for the deaths of 144 mental healthcare patients who died in the care of the South African public health system. Patients died from neglect, starvation, torture and abuse. 

The inquest is often mired in legal debate and technical mishaps. It can be 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 ongoing fight for justice. 

“It was Christmas Day in Eldorado Park. Cindy is laughing and laughing. She is so happy,” Vaughn, her older brother, remembers. 

But Vaughn feels great sadness when he looks at this photograph. 

“I can’t get out of my mind how she looked when I saw her before she died. That’s the picture that stays with me. She was wearing someone else’s dress that was too big. An old lady’s dress. I gave her a hug and she smelt like she hadn’t been washed. And she was so skinny. Like a skeleton.”

Cindy van Rooyen died after being moved to an NGO called Takalani. Vaughn believes she died from neglect and hunger.

Before she was moved she was living at Life Esidimeni Randfontein. “But in 2015 my uncle called because he had heard that patients from Life Esidimeni had died,” says Vaughn.

When Vaughn arrived at Life Esidimeni the security guards told him that all the patients had been moved. Vaughn eventually traced Cindy to Takalani, but he was shocked when he saw her.

“Cindy recognised me but she did not seem happy. It was as if she was pleading with me to take her home. I felt helpless and I wanted to take Cindy back home with me. But I was not going to be able to take care of her.”

In April Cindy was admitted to hospital and died soon after. 

“The thought of how she suffered is still in my heart,” says Vaughn. DM/MC

For more background to the tragedy and for information and resources about mental health, visit the Life Esidimeni memorial website here.


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  • Libby De Villiers says:

    Why there needs to be an inquest to anything other than to find every single person involved or even just knew what was happening I do not understand. There are no excuses or technical errors involved here. This was a horrifically blatant act of the most callous and brutal cruelty against poor, sick and fragile human beings. Words like mistake, neglect, mis-communication or
    incompetence do not feature here. This was evil and per definition the worst crime against humanity imaginable.
    Who is, once again, pulling strings to save the criminals?

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