JOHANNESBURG, 31st OCTOBER 2017 – The Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) considers it critical that former Gauteng MEC for Health Qedani Mahlangu must testify before the arbitration hearings relating to the deaths of 141 people with mental health problems in the Life Esidimeni tragedy. That Mahlangu should testify at the hearings is an important step toward helping the families of those who died understand what happened. It is also an essential step toward holding those entrusted with political power to account for their indifference to the lives of those who they are meant to serve. Ultimately, Mahlangu must face the full might of the law and justice must be served for her negligence and obstinacy that were critical causal factors in the deaths.
As TAC, we refuse to accept the ongoing lack of accountability in the public healthcare system and government more broadly. While the removal of Mahlangu as MEC for Health in Gauteng was welcome, this is not nearly sufficient given the scale of the tragedy. Too often MECs for Health and other political appointees in South Africa are grossly negligent or indifferent to the lives they are supposed to protect. When they are eventually forced out, they are simply redeployed to another portfolio or given another role within the ruling party. So, for example, former Free State MEC for Health Benny Malakoane was simply moved to another portfolio after grossly mismanaging that province’s public healthcare system. Charges TAC brought against Malakoane were investigated, but the prosecuting authority never charged Malakoane. After running the Eastern Cape public healthcare system into the ground, former teacher, Sicelo Gqobana was rewarded with a place in parliament.
Similarly to the cases of Malakoane and Gqubana, and people like Peggy Nkonyeni and Sibongile Manana before them, the ruling party is also continuing to support Mahlangu. The ANC Gauteng Province said in a statement that it has been in discussion with Mahlangu on her availability to appear before the arbitration. The ANC statement said that “at the end of August 2017 Comrade Qedani Mahlangu requested leave of absence from her Provincial Executive Committee responsibilities to be able to travel overseas for purposes of pursuing her post graduate studies. Therefore, any suggestion that the organisation does not know her whereabouts is incorrect.”
That Mahlangu herself has not taken steps to clarify her whereabouts and failed to preemptively ensure her attendance at the hearings suggests that she is still in denial about her pivotal role in one of post-apartheid South Africa’s most heinous crimes against the people. Instead, she has allowed uncertainty about her whereabouts to continue. Some reports have indicated that she is willing to testify at the hearings – while other reports indicated that she would not be able to attend due to her studies. Some media reports (the veracity of which we are uncertain) have said she is registered at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), while the latest reports say she is not a registered student at the institution. We do not know whether she is a registered student at any institution. Whatever the case may be, Mahlangu’s failure to clear it up is a disgrace.
The Chairperson of the arbitration hearings, retired Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke, has said he will not conclude the process without testimony from Mahlangu as well as Gauteng Health Head of Department Barney Selebano and the Director of the Mental Health Directorate, Makgabo Manamela. TAC welcomes this statement.
This past week was another painful one as families cried and spoke about the pain of their loved one’s undignified deaths. It was also a week where we heard how those who had the power to prevent this tragedy washed their hands and tried to evade responsibility, doing the minimum to collect their paychecks. We are also aware of the painful reality that substantial sums of money were involved and that in many cases the only explanation for some of the implicated NGOs taking in patients that they were not qualified to care for was greed.
While the Life Esidimeni tragedy is particularly disturbing – the basic elements of calace indifference to the lives of poor and marginal people is unfortunately widespread in our public healthcare system. While we recognise that there are many good and committed people working in our provincial public healthcare systems, we also know that these people often have to work under intolerable conditions – and that behind these intolerable conditions is the very same culture of patronage and indifference that has come to characterise our politics and public service.
As TAC, we will not rest until all those who had a hand in this tragedy are held accountable and brought to justice. It does not matter if Qedani Mahlangu is in London, Europe or South Africa, she must account to the families and face justice. In this case, as in others, we will continue to fight for the dignity of poor people. It has become increasingly clear to us that the lives and the dignity of poor people is something our government has lost interest in.
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Lotti Rutter | email@example.com | 072 225 9675