Johannesburg – The death of at least 118 psychiatric patients after being transferred from Life Esidimeni to 27 other NGOs has been described as one of "the greatest cause of human rights violation since the dawn of our democracy".
This was advocate Dirk Groenewald’s opening statement at the Life Esidimeni alternative dispute resolution hearings in Parktown, Johannesburg, on Monday morning.
The hearings, which are expected to take about three weeks, would allow the families of the deceased patients the opportunity to seek clarity and justice where they feel they were wronged.
Groenewald said the actions of the Gauteng health department in the matter had gone against the Constitution, South Africa’s domestic laws, as well as international conventions when the department ended its contract with Life Esidimeni and transferred patients to various NGOs throughout the province.
"Remembering it we must, not because of our reluctance for closure or forgiveness, but because this is how we as a people will pay our respect for those who died and suffered ... how we will remain vigilant to hold government accountable and how we will ensure that such atrocities do not befall our democratic state again," Groenewald said.
Advocate Adila Hassim, who represents 55 families on behalf of Section 27, said the arbitration hearing would be an opportunity for families to tell their side of how they endured pain following the treatment of their family members.
"The sorry tale of extreme neglect, insufficient or rotten food, exposure to cold, lack of medication, overcrowding, abuse, death, late notifications of death, picking through bodies stacked upon each other in morgues is best told by the families themselves," she said.
Hassim said the department’s decision to terminate its contract with Life Esidimeni was based on two reasons – costs or resource constraints and "deinstitutionalising".
"What was the motivation that drove this course of action? The burden of answering this lies with the government," she said.
Earlier, advocate Tebogo Hutamo, for the State, said the circumstances around the transfer of the patients and their deaths were regrettable.
Hutamo said the fact that the State willingly decided to take part in the arbitration process and engaged affected family members before Health Ombud Professor Malegapuru Makgoba’s report was released, was an indication that it took responsibility.
"The State would want to assure the affected members and the nation at large that [it] will take every measure to ensure the family members find redress and closure emanating from the incidents which occurred…
"The State expresses its remorse and [it] hopes that this process will indeed achieve the purpose that we set out for," Hutamo said.
The State's list of people expected to testify during the hearings does not include former MEC Qedani Mahlangu, who resigned hours before Health Ombud Malegapuru Makgoba made his report public in February.
In his report, Makgoba found that Mahlangu had lost credibility and that her actions and those of two senior officials were "chaotic, hurried, in a rush, and a total shambles".