Gauteng Premier cannot explain his ignorance of the move of Esidimeni patients to NGOs

Gauteng Premier David Makhura has expressed remorse and apologized for his role in the deaths of 144 mental health patients who were sent to illegal NGOs after the cancellation of the Life Esidimeni contract.

He has admitted at the arbitration hearings that he “was not aware”, and even acknowledged that this was “not an acceptable excuse … even where not directly involved.”

Justice Dikgang Moseneke has pointed out that the constitution imposes a duty on public officials to know.

Makhura said he agreed with this and said he was “embarrassed by having to say I don’t know.”

It is refreshing that he admits to error and accepts personal responsibility rather than “passing the buck”.

But it is an appalling failure for him to say that he never knew that patients were going to be sent to NGOs rather than state institutions.

It was clear at various times that patients were going to be sent to NGOs and that there was poor preparation for this that was likely to result in disaster.

On 18 November 2015, for instance, then Health MEC Qedani Mahlangu said in a written reply to my questions in the Legislature that 591 patients would be sent to NGOs and the rest to government facilities.

This was misleading in that more than 1000 patients were actually sent to NGOs, but it still showed that large numbers were not going to be accommodated in state institutions.

Makhura said that he was told that there were 4000 additional beds in state hospitals, but as Justice Moseneke pointed out, this was a “blatant untruth” and he could have been expected to question whether there was indeed such a large increase in beds.

I also warned several times in the Legislature that there would be a disaster as there were not enough suitable NGOs for the patients.

On 15 March 2016, Mahlangu said in an oral reply to my questions that 1835 patients from Esidimeni would be placed in alternative homes before the end of June, and that NGOs were hiring staff and being given licenses to look after them. Makhura was present in the House when she gave this reply and I expressed my doubts that everything was going as smoothly as she claimed.

See Hansard transcript here.

Makhura should also have taken note of the many media reports and the two court cases which highlighted the risks of transferring patients to the NGOs.

He has admitted to administrative failures in his office which prevented him seeing key correspondence that was sent to him, including a letter that Wits University occupational therapy students wrote to him on 18 January 2016 in which they warned about moving the patients from Esidimeni’s Waverley Care Centre in Germiston.

Furthermore, on 7 July 2016 the Gauteng Health Department announced that the process to move patients “to NGOs and psychiatric hospitals” was complete.

Makhura was grievously negligent in missing all the warning signs and not intervening decisively to prevent deaths occurring.

He should also have fired Qedani Mahlangu after she disclosed 36 deaths in reply to my questions on 13 September 2016. This would have saved many lives as Mahlangu and her officials continued to lie and cover-up what was happening to the patients.

Makhura is trying to make amends by apologizing and reaching out to the families of those who died, but the Esidimeni deaths will be an eternal blot on his reputation.