Life Esidimeni tragedy: Family members of psychiatric patients who died earlier this year hold a prayer vigil. Picture: ANTONIO MUCHAVE
Life Esidimeni tragedy: Family members of psychiatric patients who died earlier this year hold a prayer vigil. Picture: ANTONIO MUCHAVE

A butchery converted into an illegal mortuary and a stable converted into a home for mentally ill patients who were moved there from the long-term care of Life Esidimeni homes.

This emerged in the testimony of the Director General of the National Department of Health, Precious Malebona Matsoso, who was speaking at arbitration hearings in Johannesburg. The hearings are to get answers about why more than 118 people died when moved from Life institutions’ care.

More than 1,400 patients were moved to various non-governmental organisations (NGOs) across the province‚ many of which were unlicensed and not equipped to accommodate psychiatric patients.

After the deaths‚ Matsoso became involved and visited an NGO that had held patients. She learned it was converted from stables. She gave a few details about it, only saying it was "even worse" than another NGO described by an advocate at the hearing.

Matsoso also went to a day of mourning with affected families who had lost loved ones. One told her that a funeral parlour the relative had gone to while searching for the a missing body was a former butchery.

Matsoso said: "The [family member] knew Saulsville and Atteridgeville‚ very well. The facility she was referred to was a butchery. It is on [that] basis I decided to do an investigation myself." Matsoso left the family event immediately and went to the converted butchery and tried to gain access‚ staying there until 11pm.

"It was just a building. It did not have a name or anything. It was completely sealed," she said. With the police’s help she traced the owner, who refused to come to the building until the police fetched her. The owner said she didn’t have keys and drove around with the police looking for them.

The next day, however, she had found her keys and bodies were found inside the premises, but, it does not appear that the bodies were linked to patients moved to alternative care‚ said Matsoso.

However, this incident at the unlicensed‚ converted butchery led Matsoso to the funeral company, Put You to Rest, that was transporting bodies relating to the case to different institutions under its Limpopo licence. Put You to Rest did not have storage facilities for patients’ bodies in Gauteng but was keeping them and transporting then in contravention of laws.

The more they investigated, the more irregularities they found‚ said Matsoso.

The department also helped trace bodies that had been given a paupers’ burial by funeral parlours and then linked them to family members so they could re-bury them.

Earlier in the day it was revealed that there are 59 as yet untraced people in the case‚ who are accessing pension or disability grants. Additionally‚ there are "seven corpses yet to be identified and [their] families still to be traced", Matsoso said.

Former deputy chief justice Dikgang Moseneke‚ who is chairing the hearing‚ said to advocate Adila Hassim: "Human remains in a butchery — sounds ominous."

Hassim said: "The mortuary had been a butchery in a previous life. I used this example because part of this imagery was of the deep fear that families felt about manner in which loved ones bodies were handled."

She said the example of the butchery showed the "unlawfulness of facilities" and the poor manner in which the dead were treated after leaving Life Esidimeni".

Please sign in or register to comment.