Maverick Citizen


Portraits of Lives Lost: Remembering family gatherings at Christmas

Mojanilu Selina Klaas holds her late sister's (Bernika Mokaneng) ID document. (Photo: Supplied)

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. It can be easy to forget that people are at the heart of this horrific human tragedy. Their lives and stories matter. This is the story of Bernika Mokaneng and her sister Selina.

Bernika couldn’t talk but communicated with her eyes and gestures. She always smiled. She loved to play with children and Selina remembers growing up on the farm in North West, having fun, playing with her older sister. Family gatherings at Christmas were always happy times.

Bernika Mokaneng had lived at Life Esidimeni Randfontein for many years before being moved to Takalani. Selina only found her sister two weeks after she had been there. When she found Bernika, her clothes were dirty and she was wearing someone else’s shoes. The skirt she had on was very short.

“She was wearing a long-sleeve top, even though I know my sister hated long sleeves.” When Selina lifted the sleeve, she noticed bruises everywhere. Bernika kept covering her face with a tracksuit top and she seemed to indicate that she had been raped.

Things looked so bad that Selina decided that, at the end of the month, she would take her sister out of the facility. But, the Friday before she was due to go back to Takalani, the matron called her and told her her sister had died the night before.

“She was rude,” Selina remembers. “She told me they would only keep the body until Monday, and I must bring an undertaker. We buried my sister the next week.

“That picture of how I saw Bernika the last time – that is what stays with me.”

This series, about those who died in the Life Esidimeni tragedy and the stories of their loved ones, is available on the website


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