Johannesburg - Suspended Gauteng health department head Barney Selebano has told the Life Esidimeni arbitration hearing that he was scared to stand up to former health MEC Qedani Mahlangu, after he continued acting in contravention of the rights of mentally ill patients under her instruction.
"I didn't stand up that time, I wish I had… I doubt it would have gotten any better results. Probably. We would still have walked this tragic road," he said.
He was testifying in Parktown, Johannesburg, on Wednesday.
Selebano said it was difficult for him to stand up to the MEC about rushing the mammoth project, which he said he considered to be wrong, but went forward with it anyway due to pressure.
"I can't speculate on what she would have done if I had not acted according to her instruction," he said. Justice Dikgang Moseneke responded: "The law would have protected you."
He said he was afraid to be confrontational with his senior, something which was entrenched in government culture. He said there was no space to differ.
"It was tense," he said. "The culture of government is hard. The culture of hierarchy".
He followed her instructions to quickly move patients from Life Esidimeni to various unlicensed and ill-equipped non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in 2015. More than 140 patients died.
MEC was warned
Two rapes allegedly took place at one facility, and more than 50 patients are still missing.
Selebano explained that although he was employed by the Gauteng premier's office, he reported to Mahlangu, who he said had overriding powers.
The transfer took place despite repeated warnings from interested parties that the move would have dire consequences on the lives of patients and their families.
Selebano insisted that the warnings were relayed to Mahlangu, and that he was merely copied in on the emails which listed concerns about the move.
"Why we proceeded, like I have said, if I had had that foresight to know that the consequences are going to be dire… I would have stopped," he said.
The suspended head said he had objected to the move by co-authoring a letter with Life Esidimeni project head Levy Mosenogi.
In the letter addressed to Mahlangu in February 2016, Mosenogi appealed to the former MEC to extend the contract with Life Esidimeni by a minimum of six months or a maximum of one year, so that better services could be provided to those housed at ill-equipped NGOs.
The contract was terminated in September 2015 by Selebano after a plan was presented to him by suspended Gauteng head of mental health, Dr Makgabo Manamela.
Selebano continues with his testimony.