Horror at how SA let 141 mentally-ill patients die

30 October 2017 | Africa

Weeks of gruelling testimonies at an inquiry in South Africa have tried to answer an unfathomable question - how authorities allowed 141 mentally-ill patients to die after being moved out of a hospital.

The evidence presented has been a litany of neglect, incompetence and cruelty that lawyer Dirk Groenewald described as “the greatest human rights violation since the dawn of democracy” in South Africa.

Every day, families of the victims have told shocking stories of how their loved ones were taken from the hospital, badly mistreated at unlicensed health facilities and then died.

Starting last February, more than 1 700 patients were rapidly relocated from the Life Esidimeni hospital in Johannesburg to 27 privately run clinics that were unable to care for them.

The Gauteng provincial health department cancelled its contract with Esidimeni as a cost-cutting measure.

“One day my sister went to go see our mother, but was told she was moved. Nobody contacted us,” Boitumelo Mangena, 24, told the inquiry in just one of many harrowing personal accounts.

“My brother found her (at a clinic). She lost a lot of weight. She hadn't been bathed for a while, I could tell it from the smell.

“All the patients were getting the same medication but my mom's meds were very specific to her condition.”

Mangena's mother, who suffered dementia, died three weeks after being moved from Esidimeni to one clinic and then another in Soweto.

“The cause of death was cardiac arrest and epileptic fit. My mother was never epileptic. We discovered she had been starved and dehydrated to death,” she said.

“These people were sent to their death and they died in the most horrible way possible, they were tortured to death.

“I was thinking we could get some answers so we can heal, but that didn't happen. Nobody wants to be held liable.”

An earlier official investigation, which sparked uproar in South Africa, detailed how confused patients were hurriedly removed from the hospital and taken to care centres that were often overcrowded and unheated.

Staff were untrained, the facilities were ill-equipped, and patients were left far from their families, who didn't know where they were.

Joseph Maboe, a pastor, told the inquiry that he went to Esidimeni to visit his son Billy, who was epileptic, but found he had already been transferred.

Instead Maboe watched other patients being moved in “big trucks”.

“They were just like goats and sheep taken to an auction,” he said.

Maboe said that “Billy was very happy to be there (Esidimeni)” but later he found his son at a clinic outside Pretoria looking “frail, filthy, hungry and disorientated”.

“He asked for water and they said they couldn't give it to him because he wets himself,” he said.

Billy, 53, died less than a week later.

“When we are shattered like this, what can we say to the government? They don't care,” Maboe said.

In another distressing testimony, Sandra de Villiers said that “not even an animal would be treated” like her brother Jaco Stols was at the clinic he was taken to.


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