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We had no control over rushed and haphazard transfer of Life Esidimeni mental patients, former director tells inquest

A witness in the judicial inquest into the tragedy which claimed the lives of 144 mentally ill patients in 2016 while being transferred from the Life Esidimeni mental hospital in Randfontein on Tuesday described the move as a premature decision and a “death trap”.

The probe began at the high court in Pretoria on Monday and will run until Friday, during which Judge Mmonoa Teffo is set to hear evidence from 30 witnesses into how the patients died after being transferred to NGOs that were later found not to be properly equipped to admit them. This followed the Gauteng department of health’s termination of its contract with Life Esidimeni. 

The inquest has been established by the National Prosecuting Authority to investigate the identity of the deceased, the causes and dates of the deaths and to establish whether the deaths were brought about by an offence on the part of any person who was tasked with ensuring care for the patients. 

Former Life Esidimeni managing director Dr Morgan Mkhatshwa took the witness stand on Tuesday, saying the group had no control over the removal of the mental patients to  unlicensed NGOs around Gauteng.

“We had zero control on the transit of the patients from Life Esidimeni to the NGO’s. There was a family setting in our facilities. The users were in a familiar and friendly setting, which they were familiar with,” he said.

“They were worried and distraught when they got separated from one another, some asked us where they would go. They were devastated because they were a family in that setting, the worry grew when they heard about plans to move them.”

Cross-examined by AfriForum advocate Phyllis Vorster, Mkhatshwa said Life Esidimeni officials warned the Gauteng department of health that the NGOs would not have adequate resources and space to take good care of the patients, and moving them would be a death trap.

He said as soon as Life Esidimeni was notified that its contract would be terminated, it alerted the families and convened a meeting with them. 

“The mental healthcare users also had comorbidities. They needed someone with a clinical and specialist eye to take care of them. Our group of clinicians offered that. At the Life Esidimeni facilities, patients had access to a medical doctor on a daily basis. We were able to offer this service because of the scale of the Life Health group” said Mkhatshwa.

“The transfer was not done with any careful considerations. The timeframes put pressure on the staff. It was haphazard, as we did not know where the mental healthcare users were going to. We were the point of call between patients and their families. When families came to us and asked where the users were, we didn’t know.”

Mkhwatshwa said the norm was that a multidisciplinary committee consisting of clinicians and nurses would sit and give a comprehensive view of each and every patient and their condition. This, he said, was not done before the “rushed” move of patients to the NGO’s.

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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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