WAITING FOR ANSWERS
Five years after Moseneke report on Life Esidimeni disaster, families ‘are still fighting for truth and justice’
Sunday, 19 March 2023 marked five years since then Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke released his report into the Life Esidimeni arbitration hearings. Moseneke began the hearings in October 2017 by saying the truth about the cancellations of the contracts would be a prerequisite for the families to achieve closure. Yet the truth is still elusive.
Living with a gaping wound, the families of the 144 Life Esidemeni victims are unable to find peace and emotionally recover from the trauma. There was a mass discharge of patients, and many families ended up searching for their loved ones for months. Patients were removed without their medical files, medicine, ID books or their family’s knowledge. The memory of the frantic search for loved ones at different facilities continues to haunt the families.
Read more in Daily Maverick: “Life Esidimeni — seven years of indignity and injustice”
Next month, on 11 April, former health MEC Qedani Mahlangu is finally expected to appear before Judge Mmonoa Teffo at the inquest at the Pretoria High Court.
This is momentous for the families, who are still waiting for answers from government officials who were politically responsible for the mass transfer of more than 1,700 mental healthcare patients. The judicial inquest was set up in 2021 to determine if there is prima facie evidence for the prosecution of individuals.
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For years, families have had to deal with the reality of no one paying the price for their loss. This is despite damning findings made by health ombud Professor Malegapuru Makgoba in 2017 and Moseneke back in 2018.
Moseneke said in his report: “The death and torture in the Life Esidimeni tragedy stemmed from the irrational and arrogant use of public power.”
Makgoba found that the decision to cancel the contract was “fundamentally flawed, irrational, unwise and inhumane”.
Mahlangu rejected the findings.
The former MEC blamed her colleagues Dr Tiego Selebano and Dr Makgabo Manamela. She accused them of not disclosing to her that there was not enough food at some of the NGOs to which the patients were transferred. It emerged through autopsy reports that out of sheer desperation some had resorted to eating plastic to ease their hunger cramps.
Mahlangu swore that she knew nothing. “No one alleged to me that patients did not have food,” she said.
Mahlangu also claimed Selebano and Manamela lied to her about the number of beds available at government institutions. In October, Manamela told the judicial inquest that Mahlangu had a “forceful” management style and officials wouldn’t dare disobey her instructions.
Moseneke ordered that the high-ranking trio be held accountable. His report reads: “But what stands out is the breadth and depth and frequency of the arrogant and deeply disgraceful disregard of constitutional obligations, other law, mental health care norms and ethics by an organ of state, its leaders and employees.”
Disturbing event for families
Mahlangu’s testimony has also been a disturbing event for the families. During her testimony in 2017, loud cries were heard from distraught family members in attendance.
Watching the proceedings next month will open old wounds for many. Some have been following it online via a Zoom link, while others feel left out by not having access to all the proceedings, mostly because of financial constraints.
Thamsanqa Mthembu, who lost his sister Emily in the tragedy, says it is extremely difficult to follow the inquest with limited data and frequent power cuts due to load shedding. “I feel like I’m left behind. At times I struggle to connect to the internet. The load shedding is the biggest problem.”
Christine Nxumalo believes it makes it a bit more tolerable to follow proceedings online. “It kept us sane. I can go back to the recordings when I’m mentally prepared to listen again.”
Nxumalo, who lost her sister Virginia Machpelah in the tragedy, says that as she prepares for Mahlangu’s testimony, her anxiety levels are through the roof.
“I’ve been suffering because of this woman for six years. I’m literally living the whistle-blower-treatment life. I pray that justice will be served. But if nothing else, our loved ones will know that we fought for as long as we could.
‘For healing to happen, they must tell the truth’
“At some point, somebody must tell the truth. For healing to happen [they] must tell the truth, but I suppose nobody will. For them the truth will mean they will have to pay for it,” said Nxumalo.
Lesiba Legwabe is still battling to deal with his brother Mothofela’s death.
“I went for several therapy sessions, but the pain doesn’t stop. I remember last year I went for an interview, but when I entered the room, I burst into tears and I left. I nearly lost my mind.”
Mothofela died weeks after he was finally reunited with his family. Legwabe and his wife Salamina spent two months searching for him at various facilities. He was in a wheelchair and he had no ID book or medical records. Despite being easily triggered by his trauma, Legwabe still chooses to follow the judicial inquest proceedings.
Meanwhile, Jabulile Hlatshwayo is not holding her breath for any eventual justice to be served. Her stepson Sizwe’s body was in the mortuary for nearly a month before she was informed. He was moved to an ill-equipped NGO without his medical records or ID book.
“Right now, there is enough evidence to put those responsible in jail, but nothing is happening. Since day one, they were ducking and diving. The wounds that were starting to heal gradually, they are reopened and they are starting to bleed,” said Hlatshwayo.
At least Hlatshwayo can follow proceedings from home. After spending hundreds of rands on data, she had to install a WiFi router to ensure she had stable connectivity.
“It is not easy to follow the inquest. It would have been easier if it was in person,” said Hlatshwayo.
Johannesburg-based trauma therapist Monica Harrison believes it’s important that families prepare themselves psychologically and emotionally before hearing more evidence related to the tragedy. They also need to determine whether they have the emotional capacity to endure the repetition of the traumatic events.
“The impact of trauma can be subtle, insidious, or outright destructive. How an event affects an individual depends on many factors, including characteristics and sociocultural factors,” said Harrison.
Stuck in a traumatic merry-go-round for the past seven years, the Life Esidimeni families hope they will be provided with some answers, and that those answers will see the arc of justice finally bend their way. DM/MC
All photographs by Mark Lewis. Find more portraits and stories on the Life Esidimeni Portraits website: https://www.lifeesidimeniportraits.co.za
There will be an exhibition of the Life Esidimeni Portraits at the Human Rights Festival from 24–26 March at Constitutional Hill, Johannesburg. The festival aims to build greater awareness and knowledge around human rights and to promote the importance of an active citizenry working together to bring true justice to our country. The event is free and presents three days of hard-hitting dialogues, entertainment, exhibitions, art and films. For further information write to [email protected]. To see the full programme visit www.constitutionhill.org.za.