Life Esidimeni inquest: Directorate implemented plan to ‘adopt’ NGOs to help ‘stop the deaths’

When patients started dying at NGOs after being moved from Life Esidimeni facilities, the Gauteng mental health directorate implemented an “adopt an NGO” strategy to save lives.

This was the evidence of the former head of mental health in the province, Dr Makgabo Manamela, at the Life Esidimeni inquest.

Manamela said while district offices ran NGOs, she told managers who reported to her in the provincial office to adopt facilities.

The inquest, which is being heard virtually in the Gauteng High Court sitting in Pretoria, aims to determine whether anyone can be held criminally liable for the deaths of at least 140 mental health patients who died in NGOs.

Asked what her powers were as the head of mental health when patients started dying, Manamela said: “Our powers were to support or work together with the NGOs to stop the deaths. That is why we had the adopt an NGO strategy. I allocated my staff so that if patients need things urgently, they can help.”

She said her staff were reluctant to be assigned to an NGO because they fell under district offices. “It was tough on my staff. They felt I should not allocate them to adopt NGOs, but it was necessary.”

Manamela said the department also hired a dietician.

Protesters holding signs condemning Life Esidimeni tragedy

Protests erupted in 2018 over the Life Esidimeni tragedy.
Getty Images Alet Pretorius/Gallo Images/Getty Images

She said NGOs did not have food and, in some cases, linen and clothes, because the department did not pay them in the first few months they took in patients.

Manamela also said when patients were moved to NGOs, she and her staff visited them and discovered problems.

She said that once deaths were reported, she and former Gauteng health MEC Qedani Mahlangu and project manager Dr Richard Lebethe visited the NGO Precious Angels in Pretoria.

At the facility, they found two professional nurses. She said the section that housed male patients was unsuitable because it was a double-storey building.

Group of people gathered at memorial service

Families, relatives and community members gather for a prayer vigil in remembrance of the Life Esidimeni psychiatric patients who died.
Gallo Images Gallo Images / Beeld / Felix Dlangamandla

“There were cot beds; the men slept in the cot beds. But the cots were not for children. They were for adults.”

Manamela said that because the NGO had not been paid on time, they had a food shortage.

“Patients were transferred to Kalafong [Hospital] but were cared for by Precious Angels. The hospital provided them with food and medication.”

For a second day in a row, Manamela told the court that Mahlangu intimidated managers to go ahead with the project.

She said:

Even qualified people like psychiatrists did not raise concerns in the meetings. They were scared to speak.

She said it was untrue that health professionals misled Mahlangu about the project.

“If the MEC believed we misled her, she should have listened to those outside the department. Those who wrote letters to her.”

Organisations like the SA Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag) and the South African Society of Psychiatrists wrote letters to Mahlangu asking her not to continue with the project.

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