Wednesday was Human Rights Day. On March 21, 1960, the police at Sharpeville fired on a peaceful protest against the pass laws, killing 69 and wounding 180.
The Sharpeville massacre reverberated around the world and indelibly shaped our history. In 1994, the first democratic government declared the day to be a public holiday, a time to reflect on our rights and how best to protect them.
It is fitting then that in a week dedicated to human rights, former deputy chief justice Dikgang Moseneke released his arbitration finding into the Esidimeni tragedy.
It follows the Gauteng health department’s removal of over 1 400 psychiatric patients from institutional care, to be callously dispersed among a multitude of dubious nongovernmental organisations. At least 144 died; 1 418 were exposed to trauma, starvation and life-threatening illness; and 44 remain missing.
It is, writes Moseneke, “a harrowing account of the death, torture and disappearance of vulnerable mental healthcare users in the care of a delinquent provincial government. It is also a story of the searing and public anguish of the families and of collective shock and pain”.
Esidimeni – along with the Marikana massacre of 2012, when police shot dead 34 miners – is the nadir of human rights in the democratic era. Eerily, the phrases that describe what happened there are redolent of the apartheid era.
Moseneke writes that Gauteng health’s leaders provided explanations “so improbable that they must be false … neither cogent nor rational … disingenuous and dishonest”. Their actions were “vacuous … in blatant breach of the law and the constitution”.
Given that the events at Esidimeni are so in conflict with the values of Human Rights Day, one might assume that the government would have taken Wednesday’s ceremonies to be an apposite moment for reflection and penance. Nope, not really.
Deputy President David Mabuza made passing reference to that “painful period” in a speech. But Panyaza Lesufi, standing in for the Gauteng premier, appears to have said nothing about Esidimeni.
On the contrary, the Gauteng government, which should be cringing in shame, this week put out 45 self-congratulatory tweets or retweets about Human Rights Day, 15 boastful ones about development plans and only six about Esidimeni – simply noting the release of Moseneke’s findings.
It is the issue of compensation that is most revealing of the state’s feelings about what happened. It’s about pence, not penance. Crassly, the state pre-emptively warned the hearing that it had budgeted a derisory R180 000 per victim for damages, and R20 000 for funeral expenses.
Moseneke responded scathingly: “In effect, the government invited me to squeeze this pervasive and reeking violation into … [what] might be the going rate in trial courts. I declined that invitation.” He topped up the state’s offer with another R1 million per victim.
Esidimeni epitomises some of the darkest aspects of SA life today: stunning callousness, greed and arrogance, to name a few. But it is emblematic also of SA’s hope and strength.