- The Life Esidimeni tragedy, in which 143 people died, only hits home once you hear the shocking stories from the family members of those who died
- Some have said the deaths were a result of incompetence and corruption on the health system's part
- Those responsible have dodged accountability and claimed they were simply following orders
"It was a painful death."
These were the words that we uttered by Maria Phehla, the mother of the first person who died in the Life Esidimeni tragedy.
It's clear the tragedy has taken its toll on her as she tells the inquiry of how her daughter's life came to a tragic end.
Deborah was locked in an outside room, left totally on her own. Her last breath was a painful one. She chocked on her own blood. When her autopsy was performed, it was revealed that Deborah was starving. Doctors found two fist-sized hard plastic lumps inside her stomach, as well as paper balls.
The 46-year-old mentally ill woman's untimely and preventable death happened just three days after South African health authorities moved her from a specialised mental-health hospital to an unlicensed charity. She died alone.
Deborah's horrifying story is just one of many in what legal experts have dubbed SA's worst human rights violation since the end of apartheid.
Over nine months in 2016 and 2017, about 142 patients died of thirst, hunger and other forms of neglect.
Many believe the patients died as a result of incompetence on a scale that is hard to imagine. A combination of apathy and a lack of accountability created a culture where actions were devoid of consequence.
About 1 200 patients were moved from Life Esidimeni, a professionally managed and privately owned facility, after it was abruptly closed by government.
The scene of the inhumane transfers is enough to give the toughest people nightmares. Patients were tied up, squeezed onto the backs of bakkies and sent to what was believed to be non-profit organisations.
To say the patients then dropped like flies would seem harsh and insensitive, but it's hard to find a comparison shocking enough to rival what happened next. The deaths of these patients, people's brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles and cousins, can rival even the worst human rights injustices the world has seen.
At Precious Angels home, 23 of 58 patients died in less than a year. The woman who was tasked with taking care of these specialised patients only had a teaching certificate for toddlers.
This led to the mentally ill patients who were moved from Life Esidimeni to suffer horrible and painful deaths. Since these revelations have come to light, only one government official has resigned. Not a single person has been charged with a crime.
According to a report by economist.com, this tragedy is a symptom of the rot that has grown out of control under Jacob Zuma's presidency. Now, newly elected ANC president, Cyril Ramaphosa, is left to pick up the pieces.
Just following orders
The current inquiry into the tragedy has brought to light the rationale behind the decisions and the lack of action by those who could have prevented the loss of life. For many, their simple defense was that they were simply following orders and that the instructions came from the top.
The purpose of the transfer was to cut costs, but an investigation by the health ombudsman has revealed the relocation and subsequent care would have actually driven up costs.
The chaos that ensued, after the ill-conceived plan was set into action, saw many patients being transferred without their medical records or medication. The operation was so ineptly overseen that 59 patients have actually been misplaced and nine of the deceased have not been identified.
SA's health care is failing its most vulnerable
This tragedy has a scope that is almost unimaginable but unfortunately, it is not an isolated occurrence. Throughout the country, mini-tragedies are unfolding as a result of a healthcare system which is collapsing due to corruption, a lack of accountability and apathy.
Hundreds of cancer patients have died in KwaZulu-Natal due to the radiation machines breaking. Hospitals are also severely understaffed.
Makgabo Manamela, the Gauteng director of mental health, denied any responsibility: "I was following the instructions of my superiors,” she said. “It was not the plan that people would pass on [die].”
Tiego Selebano, her boss, had much of the same to say. He told the inquiry he was obeying orders and that he had been under pressure from the then provincial health minister, Qedani Mahlangu, to move the patients. During the inquiry, Mahlangu has asked numerous times if she could go home and review the transcripts because she could not answer questions.
Mahlangu has claimed that no single person is responsible and that the decision to move patients was a collective one.
Those who have lost loved ones do not demand retribution, but simply want the truth, which is hard to come by as the various witnesses continue to pass the blame onto others.
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