Almost 100 Gauteng mental health patients died after MEC Qedani Mahlangu’s disastrous decision, the health ombud has found.
Political parties and civil rights organisations have welcomed the resignation of Gauteng health MEC Qedani Mahlangu, after the health ombudsman released his report on Wednesday morning stating that close to three times the number of state mental health patients than previously thought had died in 2016 as a result of the provincial health department’s negligence.
“A total of 94 and not 36 mentally-ill patients (as initially and commonly reported publicly in the media) died between 23 March 2016 and 19 December 2016 in Gauteng province,” the report by health ombudsman Malegapuru Makgoba states.
The deaths occurred after the department transferred mental health patients from Life Esidimeni private hospitals to community-based organsiations, saying it could no longer afford the cost of private facilities. Most of the nonprofits were, however, not equipped to take care of the patients.
“All the 27 NGOs [nongovernmental organisations] to which patients were transferred operated under invalid licences. All patients who died in these NGOs died under unlawful circumstances,” the investigation found.
In November, Mahlangu told Bhekisisa it wasn’t her job to determine the validity of such NGOs. Listen to our podcast:
The health ombudsman’s report concluded: “Available evidence by the expert panel and the ombud showed that a ‘high-level decision’ to terminate the Life Esidimeni contract precipitously was taken, followed by a ‘programme of action’ with disastrous outcomes and consequences including the deaths … Evidence identified three key players in the project: MEC Qedani Dorothy Mahlangu, head of department Tiego Ephraim Selebano and director Makgabo Manamela. Their fingerprints are ‘peppered’ throughout the project.”
Mark Heywood from social justice organisation Section27 said that although he welcomes Mahlangu’s resignation, “it is not enough”. He added: “There has to be a further investigation into her conduct and we will be studying the report carefully in that regard on the instructions of the families.”
Bhekisisa interviewed the family of one the patients who had died. You can listen to the podcast here:
[LISTEN] Life Esidimeni: ‘My son had death in his face’
Democratic Alliance health spokesperson Jack Bloom said his party is happy about the MEC’s resignation but added that he believed Gauteng Premier David Makhura, “bears part of the blame for this disaster as he should have acted earlier to fire her and taken action to protect the patients, many of whom are still suffering in unsuitable NGOs”.
Mahlangu resigned 141 days after the patients’ deaths were first disclosed.
The ombud’s investigation was requested by Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi. “When patients are wronged by the institution or the system as a whole, it is difficult for them to know who to turn to for relief. They usually approach the media. We realised that there is a gap in the accountability mechanisms within the healthcare sector,” he said.
Mia Malan is the founder and editor-in-chief of Bhekisisa. She has worked in newsrooms in Johannesburg, Nairobi and Washington, DC, winning more than 30 awards for her radio, print and television work.