Families demand answers for deaths of 37 psych patients

2016-10-27 18:26
Families of the 37 psychiatric patients from Life Esidimeni who died after being moved to various NGOs sing outside the Department of Health in Johannesburg in their memory (Mpho Raborife, News24)

Families of the 37 psychiatric patients from Life Esidimeni who died after being moved to various NGOs sing outside the Department of Health in Johannesburg in their memory (Mpho Raborife, News24)

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Johannesburg - Tempers flared when the families of 37 psychiatric patients who died while in the care of the Gauteng Department of Health, handed over a petition on Thursday.

Anger levels rose to match the 29° heat in the Johannesburg CBD as mothers, fathers, siblings and children of the patients demanded answers from department officials.

The patients had been moved from Life Esidimeni Healthcare Centre to various NGOs around the province and subsequently died.

They accused MEC Qedani Mahlangu of murder and vowed not to rest until justice was done.

“Qedani must go. Fire her now!” they chanted.

The group had gathered outside the department’s office for a prayer vigil in remembrance of the patients. They had also planned to hand over a letter demanding action be taken and for people to be held accountable.

The gathering began calmly. People held up posters and crosses representing those who had died.

‘Not fit to hold office’

READ: Health minister wants probe of psychiatric patient deaths

Family representatives and members of various civil and medical organisations took turns to share how they felt; the way the patients had been treated in the days leading up to cancellation of the department’s contract with Life Esidimeni, and once the patients were moved out.

“Nobody should say those members died of natural causes,” said Section 27’s executive director Mark Heywood. He said the organisation, in partnership with the SA Depression and Anxiety Group, had tried to convince the department not to terminate its contract with Life Esidimeni until all boxes had been ticked. But their efforts fell on deaf ears, Heywood said.

“They died because of the failure of this MEC, the failure of this department.

“These people thought these were the weakest among us. That is why they did [what they did],” Heywood said.

“They were sacrificed by the department. They did not look to where else they could save money. I haven’t heard them accept responsibility.”

Mahlangu was not fit to hold office, he said.

“These people have blood on their hands because their actions caused these deaths and that is not acceptable in South Africa. We must be angry and get justice.”

Tensions rose shortly after the speeches, when the department's HOD Dr Barney Selebano emerged from the 21st floor of the building to receive the letter.

Shouting and screaming

READ: ANC slams 'outrageous' deaths of 36 psychiatric patients

Families initially rejected him, saying they had expected MEC Qedani Mahlangu to receive their letter.

After spending much time shouting and screaming at the officials and expressing their disappointment at Mahlangu's absence, the group eventually handed their demands to Selebano. They vowed not to stop questioning the department until justice was served.

A sister of one of the patients who died told Selebano that the families were hurt by how department had handled the matter.

"The department is failing us. More people will die if the department does not accept responsibility and listen," she said.

The families demanded that Mahlangu be held criminally accountable for the deaths.

The group said they had information that the number of deaths was significantly more than the 37 they knew about. They said it was closer to 60, but this could not be immediately verified.

“I am pained as a person. You can never justify a death. Any death is painful. I’m a medical doctor, I know what I’m talking about,” Selebano said.

He said he would arrange a meeting between the families and Mahlangu as soon as possible.

Read more on:    johannesburg  |  health

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