Life Esidimeni: Dept could not have foreseen deaths due to moving the patients, former DDG says

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Protests during the testimony of former Gauteng Health MEC Qedani Mahlangu at the Life Esidimeni arbitration in January 2018.
Protests during the testimony of former Gauteng Health MEC Qedani Mahlangu at the Life Esidimeni arbitration in January 2018.
Alet Pretorius/Gallo Images/Getty Images
  • Former Gauteng health deputy director-general Dr Richard Lebethe says officials could not foresee that patients would die after being moved from Life Esidimeni. 
  • He says it would be hard to attribute the deaths to the moves. 
  • Lebethe says he was not an active member of the Life Esidimeni project team.  

The former Gauteng health department deputy director-general Dr Richard Lebethe says it would have been hard for officials to foresee that patients would pick up infections and ultimately die after they were moved from Life Esidimeni facilities.  

Lebethe is being cross-examination at the Life Esidimeni inquest, being held virtually, which is investigating whether anyone can be criminally charged for the deaths of 144 mental health care users who were moved from Life Esidimeni facilities to ill-equipped NGOs.

Patients died of malnutrition and neglect. 

On Monday, Lebethe told the inquest that it would have been hard to foresee what would happen when patients were moved.

READ | Life Esidimeni accused of price gouging

"Not in absolute terms you could say there is a probability that it could have been seen... You can't be absolute."

He said medical conditions are not absolute, so there was no way clinicians would know what would happen to patients, adding:

In terms of infections, you can't foresee that someone will get infected at some stage. In terms of chronic diseases, maybe. No one can stand up and say this is likely to happen, especially if it involves death. It is a difficult call.

He continued: "Infections don't depend on movement or lack of it. I can get an infection at home. Attributing the cause of deaths to the moves plainly like that becomes difficult. Especially if it happens a long time after the movements."  

READ | Life Esidimeni: NGO did not have food to feed mental healthcare patients, inquest hears

Lebethe, who was part of the project team leading the moves, continued to minimise his involvement in the moving of patients. Since last Thursday, Lebethe has told the inquest that his role was minimal because of his busy schedule, and he only started playing an active role when patients started dying.  

Asked whether he was in favour of the health department terminating their contract with Life Esidimeni, Lebethe told the inquest that he could not say because he wasn't active in the project team. 

"The ability to make such an opinion needs one to be at the coalface and continuously in charge with the situation. Which I wasn't. I wouldn't be able to formulate an opinion on that, and I didn't formulate an opinion at that stage."

Lebethe said he could not comment on whether former health MEC Qedani Mahlangu forced officials to proceed with the project despite objections. He said when he joined the team, they had already started the project. "There had been lines there, [it] had been established and worked on, and I didn't have an understanding thereof."

The inquest continues. 

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