Maverick Citizen

REFLECTION

Life Esidimeni — seven years of indignity and injustice

Life Esidimeni — seven years of indignity and injustice
The families of the Life Esidimeni patients lit candles in remembrance of their loved ones during the healing ceremony held at the Holocaust centre in Johannesburg. (Photo: Zukiswa Pikoli)

It’s been seven years since the lives of the families of patients at Life Esidimeni mental health facilities took a turn for the worse when they discovered their loved ones were being severely neglected and mistreated, and in some cases, died as a result of this.

‘Even if I’m left alone, I will continue fighting for my son. I always hear his voice calling me,” a determined Jabulile Hlatshwayo told those gathered at the Life Esidimeni healing ceremony last weekend.

It’s been seven years since the lives of the families of patients at Life Esidimeni mental health facilities took a turn for the worse when they discovered their loved ones were being severely neglected and mistreated, and in some cases, died as a result of this. 

life esidimeni ceremony

Portraits of the Life Esidimeni deceased with their loved ones were displayed at the healing ceremony hosted by the Holocaust and Genocide Centre in Johannesburg. (Photo: Zukiswa Pikoli)

life esidimeni healing

At the Life Esidimeni healing ceremony, Suzen Phoshoko’s portrait is displayed next to a photo of her nephew Terence Chaba who died during the Life Esidimeni marathon project. (Photo: Zukiswa Pikoli)

Year seven also marked the second year of the inquest into the cause of the deaths of more than 144 Life Esidimeni patients. 

The inquest began in July 2021 after many false starts, with families eager to get clarity and closure on the circumstance that led to the deaths of their loved ones as well as to find out who was responsible. This was after the arbitration process, led by retired Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke, named the central players as the former head of Gauteng’s Department of Health Dr Barney Selebano, former Gauteng Department of Health director Dr Makgabo Manamela, and former MEC of Gauteng Health Qedani Mahlangu.

Healing ceremony

Saturday, 26 November was the day of the healing ceremony, organised by the Life Esidimeni family committee, the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag) and hosted by the Holocaust and Genocide Centre. It was a grey day, reflecting the mood of the occasion, presided over by a pastor who opened with prayer and a spiritual song meant to bring comfort and healing to the families.

esidimeni ceremony songs

Families of the Life Esidimeni deceased mental health care users sing spiritual songs as part of the healing ceremony. (Photo: Zukiswa Pikoli)

The choice of venue was itself significant in that the deaths and neglect of mental healthcare users in such large numbers is one of the blights on our country’s history, particularly such a vulnerable sector of the population that looks to society for protection. 

In the Holocaust and Genocide Centre, a particularly haunting quote by Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Elie Wiesel reads: “For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.” This clearly declared the purpose of not only the day, but the whole seven-year process of seeking justice for the lost lives of the deceased as well as the acknowledgement of their families’ grief. 

“As much as the process is incredibly frustrating and painful, it’s also unusual that high-level government officials are called before a court to answer very difficult questions under oath. This process, I think, is important for accountability,” SECTION27 attorney Sasha Stevenson told the families as she gave an update on where inquest proceedings were. SECTION27 is representing 44 of the families of the deceased as well as Sadag. 

Accountability

esidimeni update

SECTION27 attorney Sasha Stevenson, representing the families of 44 of the deceased Life Esidimeni mental health care users, gives the families an update at the healing ceremony on the inquest proceedings thus far. (Photo: Zukiswa Pikoli)

Stevenson explained that for accountability to be established, it was important to show the responsibilities of various people at different levels and how their actions contributed to the fate of the mental healthcare users.

The families were adamant that they did not just want the “big three”, as they referred to Selebano, Manamela and Mahlangu, to be the ones pursued but also the officials on the ground who were charged with their loved ones’ wellbeing on a day-to-day basis and were in close proximity to them.  

“I don’t just want the big three, and I’m speaking on behalf of the families. I think the big three may have given the instructions, but it’s those ones on the ground that permitted this to happen.

“I think the top three will send a signal, but the ones on the ground were the ones actually pushing the beds and pushing people into the NGOs,” said the head of the Life Esidimeni family committee, Christine Nxumalo.

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The Holocaust and Genocide Centre in Johannesburg hosted a healing ceremony for the families of the Life Esidimeni mental healthcare users who died from severe neglect. (Photo: Zukiswa Pikoli)

At the ceremony was a photographic exhibition by Harriet Perlman, Darnell Nxumalo and Mark Lewis, who have been interviewing families as part of an ongoing memorial and advocacy website. The families held an emotional ceremony at which Nxumalo called on them to light a candle and say the names of their deceased loved ones in remembrance of their lives before going up to their photos to pay their respects.

“My mother died without knowing what happened to her child. We are going to win this because the grace of God is with us,” said Nxumalo as she sought to bolster the morale of the families gathered at the ceremony. “Don’t stop telling your story,” she urged.

Sitting in that room, a sense of sadness came over me, at the indignity that the families have had to endure over the seven years:

  1. Of imagining the confusion, neglect and loneliness their loved ones must have felt during the Life Esidimeni ordeal.
  2. Their sense of betrayal by our public health system.
  3. Seven years later, the families still have no closure or assurance that justice will be served for the cruel deaths of their beloved family members.

The intimate and personal nature of this pain made me feel like a bit of an intruder at the occasion, but the quote by Wiesel echoes as I write this — we must bear witness to each other’s lives. It is a function of humanity and compassion. It also highlighted that while the families’ unimaginable grief and trauma endure, society quickly moves on and those left behind rely on the dedicated family members and civil society organisations to continue fighting with them.

The inquest, with Manamela currently in the witness box, is in its final week for the year and is set down for 10 weeks next year.  

Manamela’s testimony has been characterised by delays and on Tuesday she again claimed she was unwell. The inquest was adjourned until further notice. Manamela was pointed out by Moseneke as one of the central people involved in the project, who approved licences for the ill-equipped NGOs where patients died. DM/MC

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