The deaths of 94 former Life Esidimeni patients are a direct result of Jacob Zuma's leadership, say health activists. (Jabu Kumalo, Gallo)

#SONA2017: Mbete refuses moment of silence for 94 dead mental health patients

Mia Malan
Key players say the culture of government created by Jacob Zuma allowed the deaths of 94 health patients.

President Jacob Zuma wants national Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi to have more power over health MECs in provinces. "We welcome the recommendations of the health ombudsman that there is an urgent need to review the  National Health Act of 2003 and the Mental Health Care Act of 2002 with a view that certain powers and functions revert back to the national Minister of Health," he said in his State of the Nation address in parliament on Thursday.

Zuma was referring to the report of the health ombudsman, which was released last week, on the deaths of 94 state mental healthcare users in Gauteng. They were part of a group of close to 2 000 mental health patients that the Gauteng health department transferred from private Life Esidimeni facilities, for which the state had paid, to unequipped nongovernmental organisations, where many died as a result of insufficient care.

Gauteng Health MEC, Qedani Mahlangu, resigned as a result of the scandal.

"We need to be distressed by the death of so many psychiatric patients in Gauteng. I've instructed the minister of health to ensure that the health ombudsman's recommendations are wholly and speedily implemented without any hesitations," Zuma said.

One of the recommendations was that legislation is amended so that the national health minister has the power to instruct MECs what to do. Currently, Premiers, and not the national minister, supervise MECs. They also appoint the MECs.

Before Zuma started with his address, the DA waved black "Remember the Esidimeni 94" flags and requested that parliament observe a moment of silence in honour of the patients who died. But speaker Baleka Mbete refused, arguing it should wait until next week.

An upset DA chief whip John Steenhuisen responded from the floor: "This is State of the Nation address. It is the appropriate time to mark the tragic loss of life. You can't put a hold on it for a week.

"It makes it cheap if you put a hold on it. I'm sure the president wouldn't mind to do that for deaths that were, in fact, a government error."

The DA eventually walked out of parliament during which shouting ANC members accused them of being racists who "use the dead to campaign”.

But, afterwards, ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe said on eNCA: "I would have given the moment of silence tonight."

Zuma said the government will provide support to families so that "they do not face this burden alone”. "The premier of Gauteng and the minister of health have already provided this assurance," he said.

But health activists, who repeatedly warned the Gauteng health department that the organisations to which patients had been transferred, were not equipped to treat them, are sceptical. 

Section27 executive director Mark Heywood said: "The condolences ring hollow. I know that they will offer little comfort to the families. It is the culture of government created and permitted by Zuma that allowed their deaths. It is the cause of the deaths in other parts of the health sector. [But] he will not admit it."

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