Retired Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke is leading the Life Esidimeni arbitration
More than 100 people lost their lives after being removed from state-subsidised hospital care in 2016. To date, no one has been criminally charged, say families. (Jabu Kumalo, Gallo)

They died in droves and for periods between July and September 2016 mental health patients housed by the Precious Angels nongovernmental organisation (NGO) passed away one after another often within hours of each other, revealed a health ombudsman investigation.

Many likely died cold and hungry, indicates the ombudsman report, as payments by the Gauteng health department meant to cover patients’ costs were delayed by three months. The death count at the NGO based in Atteridgeville outside Pretoria made it the most deadly of all the 27 organisations that received Life Esidimeni patients following the Gauteng health department’s 2015 decision to cancel its contract with the private hospital group.

Yesterday, more than a year after patient Virginia Machpelah became one of 23 people that died in Precious Angels’ care, the country finally heard from the woman in charge of the organisation: Ethel Ncube.

Testifying on Tuesday as part of an ongoing arbitration process into the Life Esidimeni tragedy, Ncube rejected accusations that patients died of hunger and cold.

Replying to presiding retired Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke and legal representatives of Life Esidimeni patient families, Ncube admits that she was not qualified to care for mentally-ill adults. Instead, she describes pursuing a degree in accounting and obtaining a certificate in early childhood education.

And despite having only cared for children with intellectual disabilities, Ncube says she opened her doors to Life Esidimeni patients because she wanted to gain experience and expand her organisation. Meanwhile, she explains she felt mounting pressure from the Gauteng health department to accept increasing numbers of patients.

Listen to former Gauteng Health MEC Qedani Mahlangu describe her role in the tragedy

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The subsequent ombudsman report found that Precious Angels facilities, which were never licensed, were not suitable to house patients. A ministerial advisory committee created by Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi removed state mental health patients from Previous Angels in September 2016. The organisation closed in January.

Ncube’s testimony sparked repeated groans and murmurs from her audience, comprised of journalists, activists and family members of Life Esidimeni patients. And in one case, her explanations prompted a family member of a patient to scream out, “liar.”

As part of the arbitration agreement, affected families are not allowed to speak directly to the media during the process without approval from lawyers.

Ncube blamed deaths on the Gauteng health department, which she says never supported Precious Angels. She explains that when the department failed to pay the NGO, she solicited donations and took out loans to pay for patients’ upkeep.

She says: “The department really failed us.”

Arbitration is expected to continue until at least October 30, according to the head of the arbitration office Obakeng van Dyk.