#LifeEsidimeni: This official may have just thrown Mahlangu under the bus

Pending litigation may enable a top Gauteng health department official to delay his testimony before the ongoing Life Esidimeni arbitration for months.

Suspended Gauteng health department head Barney Selebano was one of three high-level officials singled out in the health ombudsman’s report into the Life Esidimeni tragedy. The events claimed the lives of 143 mental health patients following their removal from state-funded private care.

In papers filed with the high court in Johannesburg, Selebano is seeking to have his subpoena to appear before the arbitration on December  4 set aside pending the outcome of departmental disciplinary procedures. With two pending criminal investigations, Selebano is also contending that forcing him to appear as part of the arbitration process may violate his right to avoid self-incrimination. This principle allows people accused of crimes to recuse themselves from answering any question that may implicate themselves in a crime.

Selebano’s urgent high court application is expected to be heard on November 28. Meanwhile, the embattled head of health is slated to be interviewed by a South African Police Services task team today, court documents reveal.

The Special Investigations Unit is also conducting a concurrent investigation.

Catch up on the latest from the arbitration with our Nelisiwe Msomi

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But Selebano maintains that he was not responsible for patient deaths following a 2015 Gauteng health department decision to terminate its contract with the private Life Esidimeni hospital group, which cared for about 1 300 mental health patients.

Many patients were later removed from Life Esidimeni facilities and sent to unlicensed nongovernmental organisations, where dozens died in a process the health department dubbed the Gauteng Mental Health Marathon Project.

“Although my position as head of department required me to oversee the implementation of policies and strategic plans of the department, I had only a limited role in the day-to-day operations and implementation of the [Life Esidimeni] project. This is because the MEC [Qedani Mahlangu] established a separate project team,” argues Selebano in court papers.

“The project was implemented as planned until the MEC established the Project Marathon Team, which fast-tracked the process from May 2016 to complete it within six months instead of the initial intention to deinstitutionalise approximately 20% of mentally-ill patients over year over a period of five years. [I] was not aware of that decision until after it had already been implemented.”

The pending court case may delay his testimony before the arbitration.

Listen: So whose fault was it?

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But advocate for the trade union Solidarity Dirk Groenewald maintains that the health department, as Selebano’s employer, has the power to compel him to testify. Solidarity is representing the families of some Life Esidimeni victims.

“Dr Selebano is still an employee of the department [of health], therefore he has to comply with the department’s instructions,” Groenewald explains.

“Should the department give the instruction to Dr Selebano to appear at these proceedings, and if he does not appear, that would be grounds for disciplinary action against Dr Selebano … There is a distinction between Dr Selebano challenging the subpoena issued by this arbitration and Dr Selebano challenging an instruction by his employee,” he says.

In his February report, health ombudsman Malegapuru Makgoba accused Selebano of tampering with evidence and recommended that he be suspended.

Both Selebano and Gauteng’s head of mental health services Makgabo Manamela were suspended in February. The duo had garnered R1.3-million in wages while on suspension as of September 30, according to a statement by Democratic Alliance member of Gauteng provincial legislature and shadow health MEC Jack Bloom.

Manamela appeared yesterday before the arbitration and unsuccessfully attempted to delay her testimony, arguing that she needed more time to prepare.

Appearing before presiding retired Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke, Manamela gave conflicting accounts about whether she had personally assessed each NGO before granting them the licenses to legally house mental health patients.

In his report, Makgoba wrote that the fingerprints of Selebano, Manamela and of former Gauteng health MEC Qedani Mahlangu “peppered” the doomed project.

Both Selebano and Manamela challenged the ombudsman’s findings in an independent ad hoc tribunal. The body dismissed both cases earlier this month.

For live coverage of the arbitration, follow us on Twitter. 

[Updated 22 November 3:04 pm. This story originally said that Selebano and Manamela had challenged the ombud’s findings in the high court. However, the pair contested the ombud’s report in an independent ad hoc tribunal headed by the retired Judge President of the Gauteng High Court, Bernard Ngoepe.]

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Nelisiwe Msomi
Nelisiwe Msomi

Nelisiwe Msomi is a Junior journalist at Bhekisisa. She holds a bachelors degree in journalism from the University of Johannesburg. 

Previously, Msomi was a volunteer member of the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation’s media team and started off her career as an intern at Bhekisisa.

She has an interest in how government policies affect the ordinary person walking on Johannesburg’s Nelson Mandela Bridge and hopes to one day find a solution to long 6 am clinic queues.

"I have always seen journalism as a means of making the world a better place. Being part of Bhekisisa allows me to do just that, especially through the practice of solution based journalism. I believe that the work we do as journalist paves the path for better service delivery in our continent," she says.

Bhekisisa team
Bhekisisa Team
Health features and news from across Africa by Bhekisisa, the Mail & Guardian's health journalism centre.

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