Gauteng health department ignored Life Esidimeni warning signs, says lawyer

Johannesburg – The conduct and testimony of senior Gauteng health department officials during the Life Esidimeni arbitration hearings were criticised during closing arguments on Thursday.

Advocate Lilla Crouse, who appeared on behalf of Legal Aid which represented the survivors of the Gauteng mental health marathon project, described the testimony of senior officials as false and malicious.

During the hearings, former MEC for health Qedani Mahlangu, former director of mental health Makgabo Manamela and former head of the Gauteng health department Barney Selebano all shifted responsibility and refused to be held accountable in the deaths of more than 140 mental healthcare patients who died during and after their transfer from life Esidimeni to various NGOs.

Crouse said Mahlangu, Manamela and Selebano's evidence had "been shown as false beyond a shadow of a doubt".

She argued that "adverse credibility claims" could be made against a number of officials who were called to testify during the hearings.

"There was an ulterior motive, but we wouldn't know what that was," Crouse said.

'Total disregard for human dignity'

"It is our submission that the department did not miss the warning signs, they ignored the warning signs," she said.

Crouse was delivering final arguments on equitable redress for the survivors of the transfer, arguing that the Gauteng health department under Mahlangu "recklessly and unlawfully neglected" its duties to care for some of the most vulnerable of patients.

READ: Family suffers amid Esidimeni blame game

"There was a total disregard for human dignity and we say our country was founded on the respect for human dignity," Crouse said.

Earlier, Advocate Adila Hassim, who appeared on behalf of Section 27, which represented more than 60 families who lost relatives, argued that the department ignored warnings from clinical heads within the department, civil society organisations and the families.

"What it does show is a contempt for civil society, and the salt in the wound is these officials testified they weren't prophets... how could they know [people would die]," Hassim said.

Earlier in the day, Hassim announced that an agreement had been reached between Section 27's clients and the state. The agreement includes R20 000 for funeral expenses and R180 000 for emotional shock and psychological injury per family.

No 'price tag' for life

But in her closing arguments, Hassim argued that the victims' constitutional rights had been infringed upon and that a constitutional claim be awarded as well.

She said, "there was no manual for calculating the price tag of a life" and that the pain and grief of families couldn't be quantified, but that the families requested a "middle of the road" figure of R1.5m compensation.

Arbitration chair former deputy chief justice Dikgang Moseneke reminded those in attendance that the figure already agreed upon by Section 27 and the state hadn't been awarded yet, and that he would make the final arbitration award following the hearings.

Closing arguments resume on Friday.

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