Health Minister Dr Aaron Motsoaledi. Picture: SUPPLIED
Health Minister Dr Aaron Motsoaledi. Picture: SUPPLIED

Breaking down in sobs‚ national Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi has apologised to the families of the Life Esidimeni relocation tragedy.

"It’s one of the most painful and horrible events in the history of post-apartheid SA‚" he stated‚ referring to the deaths of at least 144 patients. This came after 1‚700 mentally ill people were moved from the care of Life Esidimeni homes into ill-equipped non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and state facilities in 2016.

Motsoaledi began testifying at about 7pm on Wednesday‚ as the arbitration hearings draw to a close. The process aims to bring closure to the patients’ families.

"As minister of health‚ I wish to apologise unconditionally to the families and to all those who are still living. We have wronged them in a way unimaginable." He said whenever he went overseas‚ people asked him about the tragedy. "It has tarnished us in a way unimaginable ... wherever you go they ask you about this."

He said people abroad didn’t understand that he did not have the power to make the decisions of the provincial health departments.

Speaking of the chain of events that led to at least 144 deaths‚ he said: "I regarded this as a crime scene."

During cross examination‚ Motsoaledi was told that the Precious Angels NGO was paid R1m by the Gauteng Health Department‚ much of it after patients had been removed. A total of 18 patients died at this illegally licensed NGO‚ which consisted of two houses. It was closed down by the national Department of Health.

Motsoaledi said that the Special Investigating Unit (SIU) "must come in". He also said the Gauteng Health Department needed an overhaul, speaking of "blatant criminality" in the department.

Legal Aid Advocate Lilla Crouse asked if he knew why the Life Esidimeni contract was ended and chronically ill patients moved into NGOs. He didn’t know.

"I keep thinking about it. I think maybe with the wisdom of Justice Dikgang Moseneke we will arrive there and say ‘this’ was a motive."

Retired deputy chief justice Dikgang Moseneke‚ who is chairing the hearings‚ wrapped up by thanking families for their participation and calling the process "remarkable". He appreciated their "commitment to see open justice".

"I know I fought with [some of you] a good few times when you heckled." He then jokingly imitated their heckling‚ shouting "unamanga" (You are lying)‚ to laughter. "Heckling witnesses‚ battling to keep you calm ... yet you remained focused‚ and we shared a lot of pain together and heard a lot of stories together."

After more than 40 days of testimony‚ families started singing. Next week‚ lawyers will present arguments over two days. Moseneke has 30 days to determine a financial award for families of the dead and survivors.