Newsmaker: I’ll fight for my integrity

2018-01-28 06:00
Former Gauteng MEC for Health and Social Development pictured during an interview with City Press at the Pigalle restaurant in Bedfordview. Picture: Rosetta Msimango

Former Gauteng MEC for Health and Social Development pictured during an interview with City Press at the Pigalle restaurant in Bedfordview. Picture: Rosetta Msimango

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Former Gauteng health MEC Qedani Mahlangu is ready to face any outcome of the Life Esidimeni arbitration hearings, including criminal charges. She says she is willing to fight to the bitter end to “preserve my integrity”.

She revealed this in an exclusive interview with City Press on Friday, following what she says was “the toughest week of my life”.

She faced gruelling and pointed questions about her role in the transfer of more than 1 700 mentally ill patients from Life Esidimeni facilities to 122 unregistered, sub-standard NGOs between April 2015 and June 2016.

The department cancelled its contract with Life Esidimeni, to cut costs. A total of 144 patients died in these facilities.

“I don’t know exactly what the outcome will be, but I’ve been concerned that throughout the hearings, officials from the National Prosecuting Authority, police and the Hawks have been present, so I wouldn’t be surprised if I was charged,” she said in an up-market restaurant in Bedfordview.

“But I’m ready. My integrity is all I have and I’ve tried my best to preserve it over the years.”

She resigned as MEC on February 1 last year, before a damning report into the transfers, by health ombud Professor Malegapuru Makgoba, was made public.

Mahlangu said she felt “let down and disappointed” and “thrown under a bus” by the senior officials she had trusted.

During her testimony this week, Mahlangu reiterated that she was “misled” by then head of department, Barney Selebano and director of mental health, Makgabo Manamela.

She said neither warned her of any problems during the patient transfers and gave her the impression that everything was fine.

Selebano and Manamela, however, both testified that they feared Mahlangu, who apparently ruled the department with an iron fist.

Mahlangu looked shaken and worn down on Friday, often nervously twitching her feet and rubbing her hands.

“I held back tears in the public space. I tried my best to be strong, emotionally and physically.

"It was hard. It cannot be easy for the families; it is not easy for me as well because I’m a human being and know what it means to lose a loved one.

"It was not pleasant at all, and I don’t wish any of my enemies to go through what I went through,” she said.

Asked how she felt when she heard and read about her former colleagues’ testimonies, Mahlangu said: “It was really hurting. I still have questions on why human beings are so dishonest.

"I mean, these are the same people I shared cups of tea with, long hours at work with. I’ve been with through thick and thin and, all of a sudden, it becomes so easy not to tell the truth.”

She said what made it harder was being in the UK, where she was studying, while these reports came out, and not being with her family.

“I’d ask myself, what’s going here? Are these the same people I’ve worked with?

"We’ve had successes and celebrated together and now there is this difficulty and people are disowning it. Yet everything we did as a team, we owned it.”

Mahlangu has faced heated criticism after allegedly ignoring the warnings of clinicians and civil society groups about the dangers of making the transfers.

As early as 2015, they pleaded that the marathon project not go ahead, due to concerns about the province’s lack of capacity in caring for psychiatric patients, the rushed nature of the move and the impact such sudden changes would have on the patients.

The patients’ families marched on the department, begging it to reverse the decision that would see some patients discharged and sent back home.

Some said they weren’t able to care for their ill loved ones.

Arbitration chairperson Judge Dikgang Moseneke took particular issue with this last point.

He told Mahlangu at the hearings this week: “There was evidence given of marches and memorandums by the families. Why didn’t you listen to our people?

"You were part of the liberation struggle. Why didn’t you listen? I don’t see any responsiveness to the pain of the people.”

Mahlangu agreed, but reiterated that she trusted the assurances her staff had given her.

As she concluded her testimony, Mahlangu ventured a second apology to the families – who showed their disdain by walking out of the hearing.

Throughout her testimony, some relatives heckled her, shouting “Unamanga! Sifelwe la! (She’s lying! We’ve lost loved ones!)” when she told the commission that she had consulted them and had been open to hearing their grievances.

“It’s regrettable that they walked out, but I can’t determine how they react or respond to me,” she said.

Mahlangu said she felt “harassed” and threatened.

The first time was when two crime intelligence officers met her at the airport when she arrived back in the country on January 10, and this week, when she noticed a drone hovering above her home. She testified about how a Mpumalanga hospital nurse ill-treated her 82-year-old aunt and told her: “Your child killed people.”

She said: “I’m trying to be strong for my family. They have taken strain. When I was in the UK, journalists camped outside my house. I saw media reports with pictures of my gate.

"I don’t understand what my home has to do with it. My niece has been harassed as well. I feel threatened.”

Despite this, she said she had received much support from comrades, a number of health officials and practitioners and friends and family, which had given her strength.

“I’ve always been a Christian. That’s the one thing I miss about my mom, who died in 2010; she would pray, pray, pray. But I’m grateful for the people who are supporting me.

“I don’t know what will happen with my political career. But the one thing I miss about politics is serving people.”

Mahlangu has been accused of not taking responsibility for the tragedy.

She says she took political responsibility by resigning as MEC. Ultimately, she believes it was not her fault that so many people died.

“I’m still reflecting on this tragedy and this process. Maybe the lesson I’ve learnt so far is not to trust so easily. I am disappointed. And maybe I should change.

"What you see is what you get with me, there’s no hidden agenda and, right now, I just have a lot of disappointment.”

Mahlangu will be on Power Perspective on Power FM today at 21:00

Read more on:    qedani mahlangu

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