Thando Nondlwana

By Thando Nondywana

News Reporter

Esidimeni families relive tragedy of 144 deaths

Families recall how their relatives died and health department tried to cover its tracks, now on eve of report's release.

The findings of the Life Esidimeni inquest will be released today and the families of the 144 victims will have to relive the details of the health care tragedy.

They are seeking justice for their loved ones who died in psychiatric facilities in Gauteng in 2016.

The inquest report is expected to provide a thorough examination of the failures that led to the tragedy.

The report, expected to be delivered by the High Court in Pretoria, will determine if former health MEC Qedani Mahlangu and other officials were liable for the deaths.

Mouth stuffed with cabbage

Christine Nxumalo’s sister Virginia Machpelah died in August 2016.

She recalled the months between January 2016 – when the health department announced plans to close the facility – and June when the family heard that her sister had been moved.

“At first, we didn’t know what had happened. We didn’t even know where she went for weeks and there was no help from the department.

“When we found her in Pretoria, she was literally skin and bones, but we could at least recognise her. It became more apparent that something wrong had happened with everything,” said Nxumalo.

According to testimony at the inquest, a doctor said Machpelah had gangrene in both her feet because she had been left unattended in her wheelchair in the cold, without food or water.

ALSO READ: SA’s mental healthcare shame: Life Esidimeni inquest wraps up

“I’m angry and I now hate winter because it’s at about this time when all this was happening. I think my heart broke because after the post-mortem was done, I was denied access to it the entire time. I only got to hear how my sister died during the inquest. It was the most difficult testimony.

“We learned that from her condition, she was force-fed after death with cabbage to make it look like she was being fed. But this failed because it was not even chewed, let alone digested.”

The move to transfer about 2 000 patients from the Life Esidimeni Hospital to inadequately equipped nongovernmental organisations and public facilities resulted in the deaths of 144 mental health patients.

Jabulile Hlatswayo, whose son Sizwe Hlatswayo was one of the dead, said the events and the manner in which her son had died was horrific.

“What unfolded still haunts us today. When I think of the number of years that have passed, I wonder if justice will be given to the families of our loved ones.

“When we got news that the report will be handed out, I was not able to sleep. Each time it is spoken about, old wounds are reopened,” she said.

Families say government failed them

Hlatswayo said while the report will bring much-needed answers and pave the way for accountability for the death of her son, the families needed justice from government.

“We want them to be held responsible for the deaths, that criminal charges are laid speedily and it ends up in court as soon as possible. But we know the report won’t bring us closure.

“The South African system has failed us. They don’t care about us, they only care that we were compensated, but that can never bring them back,” she said.

DA shadow MEC of health Jack Bloom raised questions about the contract between 2015 and 2016 and Mahlangu described events as “one of the biggest tragedies that could have been prevented”.

Bloom said: “There was complete disregard for the objections raised by the families and lobby groups, but they fell on deaf ears. What I found in the evidence in the hearings was that everybody was blaming everybody else. There was much passing of the buck.”

A report by then health ombud Malegapuru Makgoba highlighted a myriad problems in the public health sector.

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