Suspended Gauteng health Head Dr Barney Selebano at Life Esidimeni Arbitrations hearings in Parktown, Johannesburg. Picture: ALAISTER RUSSELL/THE TIMES
Suspended Gauteng health Head Dr Barney Selebano at Life Esidimeni Arbitrations hearings in Parktown, Johannesburg. Picture: ALAISTER RUSSELL/THE TIMES

Pressure to place patients in nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) came from former Gauteng health MEC Qedani Mahlangu.

This is one of the admissions suspended Gauteng health head of department Barney Selebano was forced to make while on the stand at the Life Esidimeni hearing.

Evidence leader Patrick Ngutshana said in response: "Now we are getting somewhere."

Selebano was forced to testify at the Life Esidimeni hearing after losing his court bid to challenge a subpoena on Monday. He testified that "some" NGOs, including Precious Angels, took in more mentally ill patients than they could cope with so that they could make more money‚ calling it a "numbers game".

Twenty patients died at Precious Angels.

Selebano admitted that there was great pressure to move patients into NGOs after the Life Esidimeni homes contract was cancelled‚ but would not be drawn on who cancelled the contract, leaving almost 1‚700 severely mentally ill and intellectually disabled patients without homes.

He said it was a team decision and that teams were looking at many Gauteng health department contracts to try to save money. "We were told there was no money."

But he did not shed light on why the contract was cancelled other than to say "financial pressures".

Retired Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke‚ who is in charge of the hearing‚ eventually told him that he and the families were hoping to get answers as to what had really happened.

"We still hope somebody senior will come and tell us what happened. It is a very important part of healing‚ Dr Selebano. Sometimes we know out of hindsight‚ sometimes we know out of inferences. You are a very vital part of this. You are the man who signed off on the plan."

Selebano testified that in August 2016 he closed down NGOs at the behest of Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi‚ who called him following the deaths of 36 mentally ill patients reported in the media.

Motsoaledi said "we can’t afford any more deaths", Selebano said.

But explaining how provincial staff could not be instructed to do things by the national health minister‚ Selebano told the hearing: "I can’t take directives from the minister."

He said to Motsoaledi: "Please write to the [Gauteng health] MEC and tell her you have made a decision to close the NGOs."

Selebano first needed permission from Mahlangu and then he started to shut down NGOs. He was asked more than 10 times by Moseneke why he moved patients out of NGOs. He would only say that it was because he had been instructed to.

He initially would not speak on the poor conditions at NGOs‚ despite repeated questioning on this.

Moseneke asked: "What was the bad situation that required patients to be moved?"

Selebano said: "The bad situation was what the minister said. We are in a situation that have people demised."

After three hours on the stand and endless questions‚ he finally admitted NGOs were "not fit for purpose".

A frequent refrain by Selebano about the tragedy was that he learnt how things went wrong in "hindsight"‚ suggesting he didn’t know what was occurring at the time.

Selebano said: "This is hindsight. Then I got to learn what actually transpired. In all honesty‚ it is not easy for any other head of department to know before. This is post facto."

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