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An inquest into the Life Esidimeni tragedy will start in July

Five years after the Life Esidimeni tragedy, when 144 people died under disturbing circumstances, families of the victims are still angry, in despair and traumatised by how their loved ones died while in the care of government funded facilities. 

On 19 July, a formal inquest into the disaster will start in the high court in Pretoria, before Judge Mmonoa Teffo.

“We have to continue talking about the Life Esidimeni tragedy, so that we ensure that no one forgets and most importantly, to ensure what happened there never happens again,” said Cassey Chambers, of the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag) on Thursday. 

“We owe justice to all the people who suffer from mental illness, we will ensure that others are not allowed to forget.”  

She was speaking during the launch of the Life Esidimeni Memorial Portal, which seeks to help and assist families of those suffering from mental illness and anxiety. The portal went live on Thursday. 

Christine Nxumalo, who has been at the heart of the tragedy as spokesperson for the families committee, said that the journey to justice was ongoing.

“It’s important to continue telling the stories of those who suffered and their families. It’s very important to remember what they meant to us. What happened was tragic, and I would never wish for it to happen to anyone. We must make sure our fight is strengthened until the treatment of mentally ill people in this country changes,” said Nxumalo at the launch.

She lost her sister, Virginia Machpelah in the tragedy.

“This website means we can help many other people with information regarding mental health and where they can get help, and also have access to medication that can assist them. We want to change how mental health is dealt with in South Africa,” she said.

“Help us get rid of the stigma associated with mental illness. We need to help each other. We need to change how we look at people with mental illness. People must be aware that they do not have to suffer in silence. Most of us suffer from anxiety and many other related causes without knowledge,” said Nxumalo. 

Harriet Perlman, one of the brains behind the portal, described it as an ongoing story of courage and tenacity.

“This website demonstrates clearly the power of people to come together and find strength in one another. It’s a story of people who died from neglect by our health system. One of the things we observed during making this website was the anger, trauma, despair that the families of those who died went through and are still feeling,” she said. 

“People spent months and some even a year looking for their loved ones. We are hoping for democracy and action now. We are inviting people to submit their stories to the website and seek help.”

The portal includes photos of those who lost their loved ones holding framed portraits and pictures, a link to useful numbers and an option to report mental health facilities failing in their treatment of patients. The portal also has a feature that provides all the reports and court cases associated with Life Esidimeni. 

A feature film that documents the tragedy is on the cards, said Perlman, and it is hoped that it will be released next year. 

“We are currently working on a feature film that aims to ensure that this story never goes away. It cannot be forgotten, until something is done,” she said.

Sasha Stevenson, head of health for advocacy group  Section 27, said July’s judicial inquiry would assist in bringing about much needed criminal accountability and answers for the desperate families of the deceased.

“As much as the state has taken formal responsibility for what happened, we also need professional accountability from the medical professionals who were involved in this tragedy. The inquest will be an opportunity for the judge to establish all necessary prosecution,” said Stevenson.

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Chris Gilili
Chris Gilili is a climate and environmental journalist at the Mail & Guardian’s environmental unit, covering socioeconomic issues and general news. Previously, he was a fellow at amaBhungane, the centre for investigative journalism.

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