/ 20 July 2021

Poor government decisions caused Life Esidimeni deaths, inquest hears

Safrica Health Rights
Hundreds of South African members of the non-governmental organisation Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) protest outside the Life Esidimeni arbitration public hearing on January 22, 2018 in Johannesburg, South Africa. At least 143 mentally ill patients died after South African authorities moved them in 2016 from hospital to unlicensed health facilities that were compared to "concentration camps", a government investigation revealed on January 17, 2018. Many of the deaths were due to pneumonia, dehydration and diarrhoea, as the patients were hurriedly shifted to 27 "poorly-prepared" facilities in an apparent cost-cutting measure that showed evidence of neglect. (AFP PHOTO / GIANLUIGI GUERCIA)

A lawyer for the families of 144 mentally-ill patients who died after being transferred from Life Esidimeni more than six years ago, has vowed to show that the deaths resulted from poor decisions by the Gauteng provincial government.

The inquest began at the high court in Pretoria on Monday before Judge Mmonoa Teffo. The patients died in 2016 after being transferred to NGOs later found not to be properly equipped to admit them. This occurred after the Gauteng department of health terminated its contract with Life Esidimeni. 

After arbitrating the tragedy in 2018, then deputy chief justice Dikgang Moseneke said he had found that officials were negligent.

On Monday, senior counsel Adila Hassim, who together with Thabang Pooe is representing the 44 families, reiterated Moseneke’s finding that the deaths were not natural.

“They were a result of gross negligence and lack of care. All officials from the Gauteng department of health were warned about the inevitable dangers of moving the patients. They went ahead with removals without consulting any medical experts or the families,” said Hassim.

“We will prove to this court that poor government decisions caused the death. We also understand that inquests are not trials but are set to investigate the cause. Judges have a duty to implement laws of evidence and those who have been implicated must be brought to justice,” she said, adding that should there be a need for a prosecution, this would be determined by the National Prosecuting Authority after the inquest. 

Qedani Mahlangu, the Gauteng MEC for health at the time, had failed to heed many warnings that could have helped avert the deaths, Hassim added.

While noting that Monday’s inquest was not a trial, evidence leader advocate Pieter Luyt said the acts of the provincial government amounted to contravening the Constitution.

“Despite several warnings officials pushed forward [with the transfer of patients]. Whether gross negligence and unlawfulness resulted in all or some of the deaths, this inquest is going to find that out,” he said, noting that medical evidence had shown most of the deceased bodies had been disposed of in a brutal manner.

Luyt said despite plans to renovate several of the NGO facilities the patients were transferred to, they had been condemned as unfit to house people. Concerns raised by various groups, including the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag), about the short time frame and poor preparations for the transfer were not heeded, he added.

Sadag’s Cassey Chambers told the inquest the loss of so many lives could have been avoided .

“The patients should not have died. The facilities were not adequate to look after these kinds of patients. We were not allowed to get in and see patients because we were not family,” she said.

“We tried to assist in the best interest of those families. But we were shut out and not allowed to interact with them, she said, adding that Mahlangu had not been pleased with Sadag raising issues of concern.

“ We had several meetings with the [health] department where it showed that she didn’t appreciate our work,” Chambers said.