Five years after the Life Esidimeni catastrophe, which resulted in the deaths of 144 mentally ill state patients, four of those accountable for it have still not been suspended by their professional councils.
The formal judicial inquest into the deaths of the patients began on Monday in the Pretoria High Court.
On Friday, the SA Nursing Council (SANC) told City Press that steps had still not been taken against Dr Makgabo Manamela, then director of mental health at the Gauteng health department, her then deputy, Hannah Jacobus, and Dumi Masondo, former chairperson of the Gauteng review board.
The Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) has also not yet suspended Dr Barney Selebano, who was then head of the Gauteng health department.
The department confirmed that Selebano and Jacobus had retired and received their full pension payments.
Jacobus worked at the department until her retirement. The then MEC for health, Qedani Mahlangu, Selebano and Manamela all resigned in 2017, around the time that the health ombudsman, Professor Malegapuru Makgoba, released his report in which he recommended that those he called the “architects” of the tragedy and everyone involved in it be suspended.
“Quick action against such employees is important for government. That’s why we’re currently working on the process,” said SANC CEO Sizeni Mchunu in response to City Press’ query.
She did not explain why the “quick action” had still not taken place – four years after the recommendation.
Christopher Tsatsawane, head of corporate affairs at the HPCSA, said the case against Selebano had been postponed due to the current level 4 lockdown, but also failed to explain why the matter had been delayed for years.
Public interest law centre Section27 has been fighting since June 2015 for the rights of mentally ill state patients, of whom about 2 000 were scheduled to be moved from four Life Esidimeni hospitals in Gauteng. The organisation repeatedly warned the department about the consequences and even took the matter to court in December 2015.
The process was then stopped, but later resumed. From the end of March to the end of June 2016, about 1 400 patients were transferred to unlicensed NGOs. City Press reported at the time that families were searching for loved ones who had been relocated without their knowledge.
Father Joseph Maboe died in April this year without seeing the fulfilment of his wish that the people responsible for the deaths of his son Billy and other patients should go to jail. He told City Press’ sister publication, Rapport, in September 2016 that Billy had been kept with 70 other men in a garage at an NGO in Hammanskraal, north of Pretoria. There was no electricity, nor a functioning toilet. The patients were hungry, thirsty and neglected.
“When I asked the old nurse for water for my son, she refused and said he would wet himself. We bought him a packet of chips and soft drinks and he was so hungry that he even wanted to eat the paper. He was dirty and wearing the same clothes he’d had on three weeks before,” Maboe said.
Billy died shortly afterwards
Sasha Stevenson, head of health rights at Section27, which will represent the families of 40 deceased patients in court tomorrow, said it was shocking that the SANC had not yet acted against people like Manamela.
“She and the other state workers like Mahlangu were repeatedly warned not to proceed with their plans because it would be a danger to the patients’ lives, but they simply ignored this.
“As state workers, they didn’t fulfil their constitutional obligations and ignored patients’ rights. They must now be prosecuted,” said Stevenson.
Marie Colitz (63) said her husband of 40 years, Freddie (then 63), died suddenly in 2016 after being moved from the Life Esidimeni Hospital in Randfontein and was badly neglected at the NGO near Krugersdorp where he had to stay.
“My husband suffered from severe depression, which got worse over the years and I could no longer take care of him,” said Colitz. “They looked after him well at the Life Esidimeni Hospital. He was a good husband and father to our two sons and even made jokes when we visited. But then he was moved, starved and neglected. He and the other patients were tortured like animals. His blood pressure suddenly went up and down and he had a lot of sores and bruises on his body. To this day, I don’t know exactly what happened.
“It’s heartbreaking. Government says these people’s families didn’t care about them, but that’s not true. We visited him regularly. To government, they were just numbers – like dogs, they could be locked up in cages and taken away – but to us, they were loved ones: husbands, fathers, family.
“If these civil servants don’t go to jail, they’ll be getting away with murder. But, alas, I long ago lost faith in our government.”