EDITORIAL: Victims of the state’s priorities
The prolonged suffering and miserable deaths of 94 psychiatric patients expose the corrupt state's betrayal of SA's moral foundation
Nelson Mandela said a nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its weakest. Health Ombud Prof Malegapuru Makgoba’s report on his investigation into the deaths of psychiatric patients in Gauteng shows that he understands the moral foundation SA’s first democratically elected president attempted to lay. Former Gauteng health MEC Qedani Mahlangu, by her own admission at Makgoba’s inquiry, believes that politics is only about serving the needs of politicians.
Since the release of the report on Wednesday, many have drawn parallels between the deaths of 94 psychiatric patients under Mahlangu’s watch and the massacre at Marikana. But the title of Makgoba’s report provides a clear frame to view these latest victims of the state: No Guns: 94+ Silent Deaths and Still Counting. These deaths were the result of a far more widespread administrative failure and neglect than at Marikana. The abuse and deaths were covered up for months and are still being covered up.
Many died after violent seizures because they had no access to their medicines
As Makgoba underlined: no guns were used, many of the patients suffered prolonged and miserable deaths. According to the British Medical Journal, there have not been and cannot be studies on human starvation, but hunger strikers in the Maze Prison in Belfast in the 1980s provided some evidence.
Many of the nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) did not receive the measly stipends Mahlangu promised them for three months after hundreds of patients were dumped on their doorsteps. Some waited four months for money to buy food, fridges and stoves and to hire professional staff. Unlike the Irish political prisoners, these patients did not make a clear-headed and principled decision to refuse food and water; many died after violent seizures because they had no access to their medicines.
Makgoba found the most common cause of the deaths was pneumonia, followed by uncontrolled seizures. Patients whose deaths were recorded by the authorities were found to be starving and dehydrated. Relatives testified that the patients had been given no blankets or warm clothing during 2016’s cold winter.
Mahlangu’s testimony is gobsmacking. She had been warned by relatives of the patients and Section27 that she was risking lives by taking them from Life Esidimeni to community-based facilities, but said that when she took a policy decision, she stuck to it. When reports emerged in the media of the patients’ suffering, she could not attend to it because she was "busy with political work". She was head of the ANC elections team in Gauteng and was occupied with her party political work. She stopped keeping a tally after 37 patients died because she did not want people to make "political points" about the deaths.
She offered only two reasons why she decided to move the patients from Life Esidimeni: to save money and encourage the growth of community care. Her parsimony makes absolutely no sense. As Makgoba points out, the average cost per patient per day at a state psychiatric hospital is as high as R1,960 and Life Esidimeni charged R320 per patient a day. Mahlangu intended to pay the NGOs R112 per patient per day.
Makgoba’s list of recommendations correctly places some responsibility for cleaning up this tragedy with Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi and Gauteng Premier David Makhura. He recommended the removal of Mahlangu from her post — hours after she resigned. He wants disciplinary action to be taken against the officials implicated.
President Jacob Zuma "extended deepest condolences" to the relatives of the dead. He offered no state funerals, no further help. If there ever was a time for the nation to mourn — as the ANC likes to do when celebrities die — it is now. We are all going to be judged on these 94 deaths ... and counting.