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A woman is comforted after breaking down during the Life Esidimeni proceedings. Picture: ALON SKUY/THE TIMES
A woman is comforted after breaking down during the Life Esidimeni proceedings. Picture: ALON SKUY/THE TIMES

The tragic deaths of 144 mental health patients at Life Esidimeni in Gauteng exposed the government’s callous disregard for the rights and dignity of the most vulnerable members of our society.

But this was not an isolated incident. It was a symptom of a deeper malaise that afflicts the state’s attitude and approach to the care of people with disabilities.

In Mpumalanga, another scandal has emerged, where an NGO called Sunfield Home Fortuna has been using patients as pawns in a subsidies dispute with the provincial social development department. The NGO, which houses almost 70 physically and intellectually disabled people at its Balfour facility, has been parading some of the patients at the department’s offices to pressure officials to increase the monthly subsidy of R1,984 a patient, which has not been raised since 2008.

This is a shocking and shameful violation of patients’ rights to dignity and privacy. It is also a clear indication that the NGO is not competent or qualified to provide the necessary care and support for these patients, who require specialised and professional services. The NGO is not even licensed in terms of the Mental Health Care Act. The SA Human Rights Commission says it does not keep comprehensive files on the patients.

Mpumalanga’s high court has rightly condemned the NGO’s conduct and ordered the department of social development and the department of health to rescreen all state-subsidised residents in other facilities across the province and to accommodate them in appropriate facilities by July. The court also ordered the department to increase subsidies from April and to budget for annual increases.

But this does not absolve the government from its responsibility and accountability for the welfare and wellbeing of the patients. The two departments failed to exercise proper oversight, monitoring and inspection of the NGO and other facilities that house people with disabilities. They also failed to ensure compliance with the norms and standards required by law and guidelines. They effectively abdicated their duty to protect and promote the rights of the patients.

The government cannot claim ignorance or lack of resources as an excuse for its negligence and incompetence. It has been aware of budget shortfalls and pressures for years, but it has not taken decisive steps to secure additional funding or to allocate it efficiently and effectively. It has also been aware of the lack of capacity, skills and competence of some of the NGOs it contracted or delegated to provide care for patients, but it has not taken corrective measures or terminated the agreements.

The government has shown blatant disregard for the dignity and humanity of the patients, who are not mere statistics or numbers, but human beings with feelings, needs and aspirations. The government has also blatantly disregarded the rule of law and the constitution, which guarantees the right to healthcare, social security and a healthy environment for everyone.

The government must be held accountable for its failures and its violations of the patients’ rights. It must also be held accountable for its failures and its violations of the public’s trust.  It must not be allowed to repeat the mistakes and the horrors of Life Esidimeni and treat the disabled as disposable.

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