We have become a family, say Life Esidimeni families at launch of online memorial

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Protests over the Life Esidimeni tragedy in 2018.
Protests over the Life Esidimeni tragedy in 2018.
Alet Pretorius/Gallo Images/Getty Images
  • An online Life Esidimeni Memorial and Advocacy Project was launched on Thursday to pay tribute to the 144 mental health patients who died. 
  • A formal inquest hearing is expected to start in July.
  • The families of the victims say they have kept in communication over the years. 

Nearly five years after the tragic deaths of 144 people with mental health conditions, some of the families of the Life Esidimeni victims say they still feel like a family.

On Thursday, an online Life Esidimeni Memorial and Advocacy Project was launched at a virtual event.

It is a joint partnership between Section27, the SA Depression and Anxiety Group, SA Society of Psychiatrists and Life Esidimeni Family Committee. 

"We as a family are very happy to be part of this process because, for us, it is important to continue telling the stories. It can never be over; it can never have happened in the past and never be spoken about, so for us, this is very, very important," said Christine Nxumalo.

ALSO READ | Life Esidimeni inquest hearing set for July

Nxumalo lost her sister, Virginia Machpelah, who was a patient at Life Esidimeni Randfontein, where she was placed due to Alzheimer's.

"The website pays, for us as families, tribute. Our loved one's names to us mean the world and maybe not to someone else. Still, it's important to continuously tell our stories and remember who they were to us and never to forget, but also never to forget how they died; it was tragic.

She said:

I honestly don't wish what happened to us to ever happen to other people, especially people who were as venerable as they were.

Nxumalo and the other families, as well as the various organisations, have been working on the website since 2020. It features pictures of their loved ones and their stories. The website also has an interactive feature that allows others, who may have directly or indirectly been affected by the tragedy, to tell their stories.   

She said:

We as a family are very happy to be part of this process because, for us, it is important to continue telling the stories. It can never be over. It can never have happened in the past and never be spoken about, so for us, this is very, very important.

 It includes various features and resources for people living with mental health and their families.

Through the website, people are able to raise complaints about facilities that are problematic. 

"An important step in creating awareness and advocacy is to make a shift from awareness to action. We need to encourage and empower people to take action for themselves, for their loved ones, for systemic changes needed to improve our social and mental wellbeing especially now during Covid-19," said Cassie Chambers from SA Depression and Anxiety Group.

Inquest

A formal inquest hearing into the Life Esidimeni deaths is expected to begin in July.

Sasha Stevenson, a lawyer and head of health rights at Section27, said so far, it would be representing 35 families.

Nxumalo said:

It's a very important step, and it gives the families and us an opportunity to find out more about what happened and to see where those links were between different role players and the deaths.

"Everyone involved is entitled to be represented, so that includes people who may end up an accused, and it also includes family members. As much as it seems obvious that there should be criminal accountability for all of this, drawing the links between the decisions taken and the actions and deaths is not actually legally as simple as it might seem," she added. 

Nxumalo added the best way to support families for the upcoming inquest was to get a better understanding of their situations. 

ALSO READ | Life Esidimeni tragedy: Another NGO ordered to pay back the money

"One of the things we were constantly being confronted with is people saying we had gone and dumped our loved ones, and now that there is compensation, we have come forward to claim our loved ones.

"People need to understand that this was never the case, there were different circumstances that had people to place their loved ones in facilities, and it was a difficult process to get your loved one into a Life Esidimeni facility," she said. 

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