The first day of former Gauteng Health MEC Qedani Mahlangu’s testimony at the Life Esidimeni arbitration hearings has left families disgruntled, angry and with more questions than answers.
Mahlangu is one of the key responsible figures fingered in the Health Ombudsman’s report which investigated the circumstances involved in the deaths of 143 mental health care users who were moved out of Life Esidimeni facilities into non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and some hospitals in the province. She resigned from her post the day before the damning report’s release in February 2017.
She has also been accused by other government officials who have testified at the arbitrations, Dr Barney Selebano and Dr Makgabo Manamela, of forcing the project to go ahead despite the mounting deaths of patients who perished in sub-standard and ill-equipped NGOs. These institutions were unlawfully licenced and unprepared to care for these patients.
In Mahlangu’s Monday testimony she repeatedly denied having forced the project to go ahead even after deaths were reported, and of having knowledge of the dangerous failures of the project while it was underway.
Former deputy chief justice Dikgang Moseneke, convening the arbitrations, asked if Manamela and Selebano lied to her about this knowledge to which she replied “yes”. He expressed concern at the fact that she, as the political head of the department, could possibly have remained ignorant about the unfolding tragedy but maintained that she was “misled”.
When asked who made the fatal decision to terminate the long-standing contract with Life Esidimeni she said that government makes “collective decisions”. Moseneke repeated and rephrased the question at least four times but Mahlangu refused to answer clearly maintaining the that all of the senior officials involved played a part in this decision.
She alluded to the fact that much of the responsibility lay with the former Head of Department, Selebano as he was more directly involved in the day-to-day progress of the move.
There was much consternation and anger displayed by the audience in attendance; predominantly family members of those affected by the move.
Families want answers
Lefentse Chiloane from Thembisa took a day off work to attend Monday’s proceedings hoping Mahlangu would be transparent with the truth and provide answers as to how the project was able to cause such destruction for so many families.
Her intellectually disabled younger sister Julia Kgatte was luckier than many: she survived the move to the now-infamous Takalani Home in Soweto, but she was not left unscathed and is only now starting to “go back to normal” and is being cared for at Baneng Care Centre.
“When my sister was moved to Takalani from Life Randfontein we were not told and we were lucky to find her. But after a month at that NGO she had changed so much, she was always dirty, was allowed to walk around naked in the presence of male patients and she was so, so unhappy,” she told Health-e News.
“But Mahlangu is here wasting our precious time by telling lies. This is just a blame game and it makes me very angry. We don’t have money to waste to come watch her lie. We came here for the truth, and no-one wants to give it to us,” she said.
The Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), along with a number of other civil society organisations, marched to the arbitrations in Parktown in solidarity with the affected mental health care users and families of the dead.
“We are sick of a government that lacks accountability. We are sick of a government that does not provide leadership,” said TAC deputy chairperson Vuyokazi Gonyela addressing protestors. She said the Gauteng government and Health Department has abused the constitution, the right to health and the right to life of the people it is entrusted to protect. She said “we are sick” of a government that “abuses the very same people who put you into power”. – Health-e News.