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Portraits of Lives Lost: ‘Your brother is dead,’ th...

Maverick Citizen


Portraits of Lives Lost: ‘Your brother is dead,’ the caller said

Phumzile Motshegwa and her late brother Solly Mashigo. (Photo: 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. 

April is Freedom month, the month when we celebrate our freedom from apartheid. But we also need to reflect on those things that have gone wrong since 1994.  

Life Esidimeni is one of the most significant violations of health and human rights in post-apartheid South Africa. In 2016, 144 people with mental illness died. They died in the care of the South African public health system from neglect, starvation, torture and abuse.  

The inquest into the Life Esidimeni tragedy 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. It can be easy to forget that people are at the heart of this horrific human tragedy. Justice for the families matters. We must continue to hear and tell their stories.  

When Phumzile Motshegwa was a little girl her brother Solly Mashigo carried her on his back to school. But then one day everything changed. It was a time of violent political unrest in South Africa. Solly was taking the train to visit his girlfriend. As he got off, he was hit on the head with a machete.

The blow to his head left him brain damaged. He couldn’t do anything for himself anymore and lived in hospitals for most of his life. “At Life Esidimeni he received the best care,” Phumzile says.

In September 2016 Phumzile received a call. She did not recognise the number. But it was Ethel Ncube of Precious Angels.

“Your brother is dead,” Ethel told her. “You need to collect his body.”

Phumzile knew that Life Esidimeni was going to close. But no one told her that her brother had already been moved to Precious Angels. “No one told me anything,” she says. “He was moved without my knowledge or permission.”

Phumzile found her brother at a funeral parlour called PutU2Rest Mortuary. The address was a disused butcher’s shop. The floors were blood stained. She was told to look through the bodies, to find her brother. She had to look through 36 bodies before she found him.

“The people who did this are still walking free,” Phumzile says. “Solly was a good person. My sons miss their uncle terribly. It’s just not right.” DM/MC 


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