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Grieving relatives demand Qedani Mahlangu’s resignation

Dozens protest outside Gauteng health department’s offices over deaths following closure of Life Esidimeni

By Ray Mwareya and GroundUp Staff

27 October 2016

Photo of protesters
Angry families protest over Life Esidimeni deaths scandal outside the Gauteng health department offices in Johannesburg. Photo: Ray Mwareya

Today, dozens of angry family members demonstrated outside the Gauteng Department of Health head office in Johannesburg. They demand Health MEC Qedani Mahlangu resign over the 36 deaths of Life Esidimeni mental health patients.

Mark Heywood, director of the public interest litigation organisation SECTION27, told GroundUp: 

“Life Esidimeni was a large institution in the West Rand providing good quality care for over 2,000 people with a variety of mental illnesses. Primarily for cost-cutting reasons, the Gauteng health department went for the weakest link, and decided to close the facility. The department tried to give [the decision] a veneer of respectability, by claiming it was in accordance with policy to place patients nearer their communities, but that is not the real reason. 

From December last year SECTION27 together with the South African Depression and Anxiety Group negotiated with the department and warned that there would be grave consequences of closing the hospital, without first establishing other facilities able to provide an equal level of care. We negotiated a signed legal agreement with [the department] in December. The department violated that agreement almost immediately in January. We attempted to get an urgent interdict to stop the department moving patients in March. We failed because they lied to the court and said the facilities were suitable and ready. And it has been downhill ever since. 

The MEC has admitted to 36 deaths. 

They died in horrible circumstances. Some of them because they no longer received the drugs that kept them stable. Some from bedsores and physical injuries because the places they went to had no idea how to look after these patients. Many patients with severe mental health issues. Some of them had been in the hospital for over a decade. They had been stabilised and liing a reasonable quality of life. Then they were dumped in environments that frightened them and didn’t have the necessary support. Some patients have gone missing and are still missing. They literally wander off and don’t come back because they don’t have memory and capacity.

Parallel to the early years of the HIV epidemic, mental health is massively underfunded. The difference is that because of the stigma of mental health and because people lack capacity it is very difficult to draw attention to it on a regular basis.”

In response, Steve Mabona, spokesperson for the MEC, said: “There is an ongoing investigation by the health ombudsman. We are continuously monitoring the NGOs [looking after patients] and where there is a need to intervene we are doing as such.” Asked if the department had lied in court, Mabona said he would not comment and that the department would look at the recommendations that come out of the investigation.

Brandishing #QedaniMustFall placards and supported by the Treatment Action Campaign, the Esidimeni Deaths Family Steering Committee vowed to sleep outside the Gauteng health department head office until they are financially compensated for the deaths of their loved ones.

“We will burn down this building if needs be,” said Philo Twala, who says the family has never even been informed as to where the body of their family member lies.

“Just locate the mortuary. I want to bury my brother. Why is the health department and NGOs so heartless?” asked Twala.

Siko Mahlangu, who lost his 27-year-old daughter, wants financial compensation. “The government must pay us one million rand for each dead relative.”

Protesters from the Young Nurses Indaba of South Africa said the provincial health department was warned of the catastrophe two years ago.

“We fear more patients will die because upright health officers in the department who want to correct this scandal are being witch-hunted out of their jobs,” said Lerato Madhumo, the Indaba’s social programmes coordinator.

“The number of Life Esidimeni deaths could be higher. We suspect a cover up.”

Mandla Moyo showed pictures of his late disabled son.

“Only medical doctors must occupy the position of Health MEC. Grade 3 drop outs like Qedani Mahlangu are way out of depth for this job,” he said.

A commotion ensued when protesters attempted to assault an aide whom they accused of swearing and disrespect.

Head of Department Dr. T.E Selebano, who received the memorandum on behalf of the absent MEC, was heckled, and the microphone repeatedly grabbed from him.

He said the demands would be submitted to “higher authorities”.


Published originally on GroundUp .

© 2016 GroundUp. Creative Commons License
This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

You may republish this article, so long as you credit the authors and GroundUp, and do not change the text. Please include a link back to the original article.