REFLECTION: Life Esidimeni — seven years of indignity and injustice

‘Even if I’m left alone, I will continue fighting for my son. I always hear his voice calling me,” a determined Jabulile Hlatshwayo told those gathered at the Life Esidimeni healing ceremony last weekend.

It’s been seven years since the lives of the families of patients at Life Esidimeni mental health facilities took a turn for the worse when they discovered their loved ones were being severely neglected and mistreated, and in some cases, died as a result of this. 

Life Esidimeni Ceremony
At the Healing Ceremony hosted by the, portraits of the Life Esidimeni were shown with the deceased together with their loved ones. Holocaust and Genocide Centre Johannesburg. (Photo: Zukiswa Pikoli)
Life Esidimeni Healing
At the Life Esidimeni healing ceremony, Suzen Phoshoko’s portrait is displayed next to a photo of her nephew Terence Chaba who died during the Life Esidimeni marathon project. (Photo: Zukiswa Pikoli)

Year seven was also the second year for the inquest into the cause and manner of deaths of more Life Esimeni patients. 

After many years, the inquest began on July 20, 21st. False startsFamilies were eager to understand the circumstances that led to the death of their loved ones and to determine who was responsible. After the Arbitration process, led by retired Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke, named the central players as the former head of Gauteng’s Department of Health Dr Barney Selebano, former Gauteng Department of Health director Dr Makgabo Mamela, former MEC of Gauteng Health Qedani Mahlangu.

A ceremony of healing

Saturday 26 November marked the day of the healing ceremony. It was organized by the Life Esidimeni Family Committee, the South African Depression and Anxiety Groups (Sadag), and hosted by The Holocaust and Genocide Centre. It was a grey day reflecting the mood, with a pastor leading the service. He opened the ceremony with prayer and sang a song that would bring comfort and healing to the families.

Esidimeni Ceremony Songs
The healing ceremony was performed by the Life Esidimeni families. They sing sacred songs in support of their loved ones who are deceased as mental health professionals. (Photo: Zukiswa Pikoli)

The choice of venue was itself significant in that the deaths and neglect of mental healthcare users in such large numbers is one of the blights on our country’s history, particularly such a vulnerable sector of the population that looks to society for protection. 

In the Holocaust and Genocide Centre, a particularly haunting quote by Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Elie Wiesel reads: “For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.” This clearly declared the purpose of not only the day, but the whole seven-year process of seeking justice for the lost lives of the deceased as well as the acknowledgement of their families’ grief. 

“As much as the process is incredibly frustrating and painful, it’s also unusual that high-level government officials are called before a court to answer very difficult questions under oath. This process, I think, is important for accountability,” Sasha Stevenson, an attorney for Section27, gave updates to the families about where inquest proceedings were. SECTION27 represents 44 of the relatives of the deceased, as well Sadag. 


Esidimeni Update
Sasha Stevenson is a Section27 attorney representing 44 of the Life Esidimeni psychological health care users who died. Stevenson gives families updates on the healing ceremony that took place during the inquest proceedings. (Photo: Zukiswa Pikoli)

Stevenson stated that it was crucial to clearly show who is responsible for what and how the actions of different people affected the fate of mental healthcare users.

The families were adamant that they did not just want the “big three”, as they referred to Selebano, Manamela and Mahlangu, to be the ones pursued but also the officials on the ground who were charged with their loved ones’ wellbeing on a day-to-day basis and were in close proximity to them.  

“I don’t just want the big three, and I’m speaking on behalf of the families. I think the big three may have given the instructions, but it’s those ones on the ground that permitted this to happen.

“I think the top three will send a signal, but the ones on the ground were the ones actually pushing the beds and pushing people into the NGOs,” said the head of the Life Esidimeni family committee, Christine Nxumalo.

The Holocaust and Genocide Centre Johannesburg hosted a ceremony of healing for the families and loved ones of Life Esidimeni users in mental health care who had died due to neglect. (Photo: Zukiswa Pikoli)

Harriet Perlman (Darnell Nxumalo) and Mark Lewis (Mark Lewis), who had been interviewing families as part an ongoing project, created a photographic exhibit at the ceremony. Memorial and advocacy website. Nxumalo invited the families to light a lamp and remember their loved ones. Then they went up to their pictures to pay their respects.

“My mother died without knowing what happened to her child. We are going to win this because the grace of God is with us,” said Nxumalo as she sought to bolster the morale of the families gathered at the ceremony. “Don’t stop telling your story,” she urged.

As I sat in that room, I felt sad for the seven-year-old inhumanity endured by the families.

  1. It is easy to imagine the pain, loneliness and neglect their loved ones experienced during the Life Esidimeni ordeal.
  2. They feel betrayed by the public health system.
  3. Seven years on, the families have not been able to find closure or guarantee that justice will be done for their loved ones’ cruel deaths.

The intimate and personal nature of this pain made me feel like a bit of an intruder at the occasion, but the quote by Wiesel echoes as I write this — we must bear witness to each other’s lives. It’s a function humanity and compassion. It also highlighted that while the families’ unimaginable grief and trauma endure, society quickly moves on and those left behind rely on the dedicated family members and civil society organisations to continue fighting with them.

Manamela is currently present in the witness box. The inquest is now in its last week of the year. It will continue for 10 more weeks next year.  

Manamela’s testimony has been characterised by delays On Tuesday, she claimed again She was unwell. The inquest was rescheduled until further notice. Moseneke identified Manamela, as one central person in the project. She approved licences to ill-equipped non-governmental organizations where patients have died. DM/MC


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Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

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